The Future of Labor Movement
Labor movements have been instrumental in advocating for progressive social change for many generations. In the United States, the intervention of the labor movement led to the development of child labor laws, unemployment insurance, employee safety and compensation laws, and social security. For the industrial society, the labor movement has helped to deliver crucial outcomes regarding equity, better living standards, and justice to laborers. The labor unions have been at the center of social justice issues concerning workers. It helps that the labor movement was constituted out of the need to protect the interests of workers. Today, the American labor movement continues to serve the same goal for which it was originally founded. However, it has been especially affected by strong social and economic forces that have caused its precipitous decline in the past decade. Membership, particularly in the private sector, has plummeted to less than 7% of workers, and there are fears that it may never recover from the twentieth-century peak where approximately 40% of the employees were unionized (Camobreco & Barnello, 2015). In its place, alternative labor groups have sprouted to represent workers, and they seem to be gaining victories in a number of sectors. Dictating the future of the labor movement has been particularly challenging in the midst of declining membership and the influence of social and political forces.
Scholars’ Take on the Status of Labor Movement
A common wave of disinterest in unionization has been observed across all continents. Abdalla (2016) notes that the current rate of unionization seems to be significantly lower compared to that of four decades ago. It is a renowned observation in almost all countries, including Japan, the U.S., Germany, the U.K., and Mexico. In most of these nations, the severely-affected unionization rate in the past two decades suggests that the labor movement is on its deathbed. There are notable exceptions though in Singapore and China, where the labor movement has enjoyed unprecedented support from the regimes in power to sustain its unionization. In such negatively affected countries, political, social, and cultural systems have taken much of the blame. This decline in the popularity attracts the attention of various labor experts who are concerned with the long-term direction that the global labor movement seems to be taking.
Several experts have made pessimistic views regarding the future of the labor movement. Kalleberg (2015) states that the labor movement will struggle to adjust to the rapidly changing environment and, most likely, its influence will decline to become a secondary force. There has been an ongoing wave of criticism concerning the failure of the unions to respond effectively to the trend of restructuring and the rise in the number of irregular employees. If this prediction turns out to be accurate, it will confirm that the structure of the future society will be entirely different from the present one. It will also mean that the foundation given by the labor relations theory will cease to be influential in analyzing the labor sector (Cahuc et al., 2014).
Frege, Heery and Turner (2015) also point to the changing employment structure as a major factor that will influence the direction taken by the labor movement. They state that the employment structure has been changing quite rapidly in the past few decades. There is a new structure consisting of irregular workers, immigrants, non-nationals, and service industry that has formed. Compared to the older structure that was mainly defined by the manufacturing sector, the newer employee group has had a relatively lower uptake of unionization. It seems to suggest that as the diversification process came into effect, the rate of unionization was affected. This factor, along with the increasing number of irregular workers in the twenty-first century, has led to the present state of the labor movement. There is no doubt that a strong correlation exists between the changes in labor structure and the continuous decline in labor movement influence. Should the labor unions fail to respond, the pessimistic prediction will soon be a reality.
Kerrissey and Schofer (2013) single out globalization as one of the factors that will continue to change the labor movement in the future. Competition between businesses and nations has intensified with the advent of globalization and information. Businesses and country boundaries have been broken by globalization so to make information-sharing much easier. The stiff competition borne out of globalization is expected to continue affecting the labor movement to bring about a further decline in the future. Lynd (2015) explains the competition is pushing businesses to eliminate any system that is going to impede flexibility. The direction that many organizations are taking is that of adopting structures that are agile to facilitate quick responses in a rapidly changing business environment. To this effect, labor unions have often been viewed as elements that promote inflexibility. They are seen as organs that hinder an employer’s decision-making process. Employers have noted this correlation and began adopting critical changes to remain competitive. It is, therefore, expected that the influence of the labor movement will decline further in the future. Also, neoliberal ideas have penetrated the media and facilitated negative opinion on labor unions as elements that hinder operations in a free market. Cases that this prediction might be true are being seen today as more employees continue to face retrenchment despite the presence of labor unions. It shows that with globalization and stiff competition, the unions have been unable to protect their members.
The Future of the Labor Movement as Informed by Current Practices
In the 1950s, 35% of American salary earners were union members. The labor unions of that time had a huge influence on the process of setting wage standards. However, in recent times their influence has declined, especially due to the constant hammering by anti-union business employers and political attacks. Barely three years ago, have the non-unionized employees of the fast-food sector came together to demand a pay rise to $15 an hour in Milwaukee. This protest is similar to that of 2016 dubbed “Fight for $15,” which was regarded as a movement that was keen to push for a raise in the national minimum wage within the fast-food sector. The protest also took a new turn when the workers decided to demand better working conditions and the right to form unions as the movement swept across the country. The movement provoked more discussions regarding the future of the labor movement. According to Rosenblum (2017), this new protest-based model of pressuring firms to raise wages or consider employee benefits is a big warning to the sustainability of the labor movement. This trend has already taken shape in different states. It is observed that the number of states where the private-sector union membership is over 10% is not more than six states.
Some experts view the new protest model used by the $15-an-hour movement differently as they predict the future of the labor movement. According to Bobo and Pabellon (2016), the movement was initially treated as a joke only for it to lead to the adoption of the $15 wages in major metropolitan areas. Over 20 million Americans are now viewing the $15-an-hour as law while a further 35 million are in states that acknowledge the minimum wage. Based on this development, he mentions that the future of the labor movement is reflected more in new enterprise activism and organization. The trend of enterprise activism has already influenced decisions in the labor sector in the U.S beginning with the $15-an-hour minimum wage. Hattam (2014) explains that today’s unions should not expect to be remembered for how many employees they organize under the labor movement because it has been declining in the past five decades. He also explains that the labor union should not expect to be successful in bargaining high-quality contracts, because the U.S. is largely a non-unionized economy today, and one should not expect the unions to deliver relatively great bargain contracts. Therefore, workers in the future will tend to organize themselves to bargain for their contracts through the help of labor unions. The labor unions will have to transfer resources and assets to invent the new form of worker power in the U.S.
Futurologists expect the change in administration to influence a change in the future of the labor movement. At the present day, the Republican presidency is causing jitters among the many sectors in the U.S. Republicans control of the House and Senate, meaning that if the conservatives had their way, there will be no unions. A projection is that labor unions are going to have a rough time not experienced since the 1930s. The president has also made negative remarks against the United Steelworkers 1999 as well as its leaders for driving jobs away from America. With a Republican majority, the labor movement’s existence and purpose are under a huge threat. In case the Republicans interfere with the employees’ rights to collective bargaining, the labor unions’ power will be curtailed. Also, if the state-specific union issues are enacted, the labor unions will face an uphill battle.
The effect of such policies has also been felt in Wisconsin, where union membership has continuously declined at a rapid rate since 2011, especially after the state decided to curtail public-employee bargaining. Specifically, in Wisconsin, the Supreme Court declared that the laws limiting collective bargaining rights of state employees do not violate the state constitution whatsoever. It was a huge victory for the Republican Governor Scott Kevin Walker. The measure passed amidst protests and criticism from union supporters in the Legislature. It proved that the labor movement is losing its influence. Wunnava (2016) also notes that given the signs of the recent times, the labor unions are in a crisis because, apart from the union membership falling below 7%, industrial private-sector unionism has already been witnessed in Michigan. There has also been the aforementioned public sector unionism in Wisconsin, where the state passed curtailing restrictions on collective bargaining rights. The future of the labor movement is under a big threat under the political pressure.
The power of the labor movement seems to decline every year. Some employees have not enjoyed a raise in their salaries for years. This makes more experts wonder whether the labor unions will ever regain their power. As Friedman (2015) states, they are outdated and need to restructure quickly to tilt the shift. Some experts seem to agree with this assertion because they see the future of the labor movement as being more globalized. Labor has become a global market, meaning that unions will most likely expand their reach to influence the global labor market. Therefore, just as corporations have become more global, the labor unions will most likely learn to cooperate beyond the national boundaries to pressure the organizations that curtail unionization attempts in the U.S.
Despite the widespread pessimism on the future sustainability of the labor movement, some scholars still believe that it has a brighter future. Tully (2016) claims that labor unions will recover and come back stronger in the future. This is because the power balance between employees and employers is always shifting with time. A swing towards the employees denotes an emphasis on equity while a swing towards the employers’ end indicates that efficiency is prioritized. The power shift takes turns as it has been observed in the past. At one point in the future, the expectation is that the shift will move towards the employees and the labor movement will become even stronger once more. Now, the business corporations prioritize efficiency as indicated by the reduced role of the labor unions. However, as the labor unions restructure and organize members again in the future, the shift to the employees will occur. This is to say that as competition worsens labor unions, afterward employees will look toward the unions to protect themselves, resulting in a stronger labor movement. The labor movement might be resurgent in the future, or it will remain a depleted shell depending on the power shift. Labor leaders have to strategize to help unions are indispensable.
Labor unions continue to affect work and labor policies. However, their influence has waned over the past few decades. This decline is reflected in the reduced number of union membership and the changing political environment. States such as Wisconsin have already passed restrictive laws on collective bargaining rights to suggest that organized labor has lost its power in the U.S. Globalization, intense competition and automation have been some of the major factors that have caused the unions to become less powerful to the detriment of the workers. The expectation that labor unions will continue to affect employee benefits rests on how well the labor movement organizes its members. Apart from the restructuring, expectations are that the labor movement will become more globalized since corporations have also invested beyond national borders. It could also become more powerful than today as the power shifts towards equity. This is the direction that the labor unions might take in the long run.
Abdalla, N. (2016). The labor movement in the face of transition. In B. Rougier and S. Lacroix (Eds.), Egypt’s revolutions (pp. 197-211). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan US.
Bobo, K. & Pabellon, M. C. (2016). The worker center handbook: A practical guide for starting and building the new labor movement. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Cahuc, P., Carcillo, S., Zylberberg, A. & McCuaig, W. (2014). Labor economics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Frege, C., Heery, E., & Turner, L. (2015). Comparative coalition building and the revitalization of the labor movement. Members-only Library. Retrieved from http://184.108.40.206/OJS/ojs-2.4.4-1/index.php/LERAMR/article/view/1283/1268
Camobreco, J. F. & Barnello, M. A. (2015, July). The changing face of unions and white labor support for the democratic party. The Forum, 13 (2), 209-222.
Friedman, G. (2015). American labor and American law: Exceptionalism and its politics in the decline of the American labor movement. Law, Culture and the Humanities, 11(1), 30-43.
Hattam, V. C. (2014). Labor visions and state power: The origins of business unionism in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kalleberg, A. L. (2015). New labor in New York: Precarious workers and the future of the labor movement. Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, 44(6), 827-828.
Kerrissey, J., & Schofer, E. (2013). Union membership and political participation in the United States. Social forces, 91(3), 895-928.
Lynd, S. (2015). Solidarity unionism: Rebuilding the labor movement from below. Oakland, CA: PM Press.
Rosenblum, J. (2017). Beyond $15: Immigrant workers, faith activists, and the revival of the labor movement. Boston, MA: ABeacon Press.
Tully, J. (2016). Only one thing can save us: Why America needs a new kind of labor movement [Book Review]. Labour History, (110), 208.
Wunnava, P. V. (2016). The changing role of unions: new forms of representation. London: Routledge.
Issues covered in the paper
- Historical and background information on labor movement
- The current status of labor movement as reviewed in various works of literature
- Pessimistic views on current status of labor movement
- Futuristic views of labor union movement
- The future of the labor movement as informed by current practices