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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.

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