New Organizations for Workers

This piece is part of the Prospect's series on progressives' strategy over the next 40 years. To read the introduction, click here.

Corporate domination of the media, of politics, and of the workplace has thrown American society out of whack. Labor laws no longer protect workers’ interests. We need to return to the purpose of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The point of the act, according to its preamble, is to remedy the inequality of bargaining power between employees and employers because it’s bad for the economy.

The act’s intent is every bit as germane now as it was when it was written, but the regulations are outmoded and often damaging to workers’ interests. The economy and the workforce have changed since the NLRA was enacted in 1935. For workers to regain bargaining power, we need to embrace three fundamental tenets.

First, a boss is a boss. Advocating for workers today is a Whac-A-Mole process in which the employers deny they’re the employers. They subcontract out their work; they hire their workers from temporary employment agencies; they distance themselves from their workers in every way possible so that they can deny any responsibility for workplace conditions and the level of wages and benefits. This makes it impossible under the current law for millions of workers to bargain with their employers or to get restitution for wrongs on the job.

Conversely, a worker is a worker. Today, many workers are misclassified as independent contractors or temps; others are misclassified as managers to avoid overtime laws. Many aren’t classified at all and work off the books. Take truck drivers or taxi drivers or the notorious case last summer of international students who worked as part of a “cultural exchange” on an assembly line for a subcontractor of a subcontractor for Hershey’s chocolates.

 Finally, all these workers, however they’re classified, need to have freedom of association in all its forms, present and yet to be imagined. Why are we bound by a law that says the only way to have a voice on the job is to have a majority of the workers in your workplace vote for a union in the face of daunting management hostility? That’s not a standard for workplace representation in any other industrialized nation. Why shouldn’t workers be able to form small groups in their workplaces or citywide associations, say, of retail workers? Workers should be free to set standards for their work however they can: with their employer, with their industry, through private or public authorities.

The current law winnows down those options to one that doesn’t work any longer. We need to make it easier to join traditional unions as the strongest form of workplace power. We need to let worker power take its natural form, whatever that may be. We need to be flexible and open-minded about the forms that will build worker power. And we have to invest in what ultimately will have to be self-sustaining organizations of working people.

The AFL-CIO is making that kind of investment in Working America, which it founded nine years ago to conduct door-to-door organizing in working-class neighborhoods on issues and elections. Our canvass organizers quickly discovered a huge receptivity to the notion that corporate control had run amok. Two-thirds of the people we talk to end up joining Working America, many take action on issues, and most vote for our endorsed candidates. Now we’re taking the next step and beginning to build organizations that members can take into their workplaces.

We’ll soon be setting up an online organizing toolbox to help people make changes at work—whether it’s having their employer offer Mountain Dew in their office soda machine or winning higher pay for themselves and their co-workers. Our job is to give people tools that enable them to stir things up.

Some of these new workplace activists will go on to organize with a traditional union. And some will pioneer the new forms that will expand the definition of what it means to be in the labor movement, including funding their organization through dues in the absence of workplace deductions.

Unions are already expanding their reach into new forms. Wal-Mart workers are organizing with the help of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, not for majority representation but as a minority voice, staging walkouts around the country with thrilling effect. Working America is cooperating with a number of unions to create expansion projects as well. For example, we just launched Reel Working America in conjunction with the New Mexico union of film technicians and stagehands, IATSE Local 480. We’re building a home for people in the film industry who don’t have a union—production assistants, screen extras, and others. They now can have a foothold in an organization and an attachment to the labor movement even if they’re not in a collective-bargaining relationship with a studio. They’re workers in the industry, and a worker is a worker, just as a boss is a boss.

Read the other pieces in this series:

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