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Organized Labor After COVID

Union membership was already declining steadily before the pandemic, and the future of organized labor as a political and economic force remains in doubt. While the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted many of the injustices faced by low-wage service and gig workers, the labor movement itself has grown deeply fragmented.

BERKELEY – The recent failure to unionize workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama is merely the latest chapter in the long decline of traditional working-class organizations. Has the pandemic made things even worse?

Since 1985, trade union membership has fallen by one-half, on average, across OECD countries. Business interests have run persistent, well-funded campaigns against unions and captured much of the media and think-tank circuit. All told, these efforts have clearly succeeded in curtailing workers’ traditional rights and scope of representation. While employer-friendly “right to work” legislation has undermined unions’ ability to fund themselves, the widespread use of “contract labor” (like in India) has created a sprawling class of workers without job security or benefits, many of whom are deployed alongside permanent employees.

Global competition, automation, and market concentration are all weakening labor’s bargaining power. But labor’s collective strength has also been undercut by internal fragmentation. There is a sharp division between manufacturing production and transportation, on one hand, and service, retail, and caregiving, on the other.

Although service workers in the United States and Canada have been organized by the Service Employees International Union, and in Europe by UNI Europa (the European Services Workers Union), we know from the pandemic that workers in health care, delivery, and other sectors remain badly underpaid and unprotected.

In developing countries, the fragmentation of labor runs even deeper, owing to the gulf between the formal and informal sectors. In countries like India, Kenya, and Peru, the overwhelming majority of workers are engaged in informal activities, without any benefits or social protection. As these workers are often self-employed, labor organizations are rarely sensitive to their need for credit and marketing facilities, health and childcare, or legal and insurance services. (There are exceptions, such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association, the largest informal workers’ organization in India.)

With the rise of the gig economy, more workers in rich countries also find themselves without social protection and very little help for their particular needs. Unions in Germany are trying to expand the availability of worker-friendly customer-review sites, because gig workers depend heavily on online ratings to secure work. In the US, some small companies are entering the market to provide gig workers with affordable insurance or sick leave. Germany’s IG Metall, Europe’s largest industrial union, is opening itself to self-employed workers; and the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain also is increasingly trying to reach out to gig workers.

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Intra-labor fragmentation also stems from how unions organize. In the US and India, unionization is so decentralized that corporate employers can easily block or weaken nascent organizing efforts. Since their defeat, the union organizers in Bessemer have recognized that they need to move their organizing efforts to the industry level – as happens in Europe, where individual firms have less incentive or leverage to curb unions – and also mobilize Amazon customers against the company’s labor practices. In the recent unionization effort, the primary demand was less about wages and more about the company’s use of robots and monitoring algorithms to set a relentless work pace.

In several countries, the hardships of the pandemic seem to have triggered a surge in some forms of labor organizing. Given the relatively high average age of members in old-style unions, organizers are trying to update their methods, such as by using social media and labor networks to get the “millennial” generation on board with online petitions and messages geared toward concerns not associated with a physical work site. Even higher-skilled and better-paid young workers are growing concerned about labor insecurity.

In New Zealand, where the labor market was heavily de-unionized in the 1990s, bargaining efforts are underway to set new wage floors and standard working conditions across certain sectors and occupations.

Fortunately, more shareholders nowadays seem open to the idea that negotiating job stability, welfare, and training programs with labor may be good for long-run productivity and profits – a departure from the longstanding view of labor as just another cost to be minimized for the sake of quarterly profits and year-end executive bonuses. Through some level of co-management, in which all parties have an interest in articulating and working toward mutually beneficial long-term goals, trade unions can assume more responsibility for the overall trajectory of firms and industries.

One problem, however, is that governments can be sometimes more myopic than bosses. For example, India’s right-wing Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has used the pandemic as a pretext to ram through laws diluting workers’ rights and security. Cheered on by short-sighted corporate interests and their supporters in the financial media, his government is pushing the economy toward more class distrust, industrial unrest, and stagnant labor productivity.

These trends are already visible in recent incidents such as the violent ransacking of Wistron’s iPhone assembly plant near Bangalore, which employs about 2,000 permanent non-unionized workers alongside 7,000 contract workers. The grievances that inflamed many workers reportedly included non-payment or delayed payment of wages, an extension of the workday to 12 hours with little notice and no consultation, and inadequate safety provisions for women on the night shift.

One longstanding source of labor fragmentation in India has been the capture of labor organizations by national political parties whose leaders often are more concerned with mobilizing electoral support for their own political agenda than they are with day-to-day workplace issues. Fortunately, independent movements like the New Trade Union Initiative have emerged in recent years to challenge this political domination.

But labor organizations nonetheless have their backs to the wall in many countries. To re-establish a foothold, they will need to ally with broader social movements for human rights. This is the only way labor unions in the US, for example, will be able to overcome today’s many restrictions on collective action. Progress will be slow until there is enough public support for unions, and enough public accountability for corporate employers, to prevent behemoths like Amazon from blocking or hindering labor organizing with impunity.