Solidarity at Scale

Ted Fertik (he/him) in Alchemist:

Recently, a consensus spanning liberals to leftists has emerged that, over the last 40 years, the balance of power between labor and capital has shifted sharply in capital’s favor, and that this change has been economically and politically devastating for U.S. democracy. It is now commonplace to find economists making an argument that was deemed laughable only a decade ago: business’s domination of workers has slowed growth, fed asset bubbles and financial instability, and made the U.S. and world economies substantially more crisis-prone.

Many factors have contributed to the weakening of worker power—including offshoring and import competition, unnecessarily tight monetary policy, and austerity. Pride of place, however, belongs to the deliberate decimation of unions, especially in the private sector, accompanied by the failure of labor law to keep up with employer anti-union tactics. Union density in the private sector has fallen to 6%, and with that collapse has gone labor’s ability to set wage standards across most of the U.S. economy. Since 2010, right-to-work laws that further weaken unions have been passed in states that once had powerful labor movements: Indiana (2012), Michigan (2012), Wisconsin (2015), West Virginia (2016), and Kentucky (2017). Though teacher’s strikes in 2018 and 2019 momentarily reversed the trend, by 2017 major strike activity had declined by a factor of 70 from its peak in 1974.

The coronavirus pandemic exposed and exacerbated the detrimental effects of this long decline. The absence of unions dramatically increased the risks that workers faced on the job. In meat-packing plants, warehouses, schools, and hospitals, workers had few options besides small-scale work stoppages to force management to supply them with personal protective equipment or to refit workplaces to limit the spread of the virus. Without unions, workers could not negotiate the sorts of short work time schemes—in which workers work reduced hours but receive full pay, with the difference subsidized by governments—that made it easier for European workers to remain employed during the pandemic.

More here.