The Union of the Future

Stephen Herzenberg |

Kati Sipp’s latest blog post on “Hack the Union” has a link to a thought-provoking interview with Michelle Miller, founder of

The interview was prompted by Sipp’s discovery of Miller’s article “The Union of the Future,” published as part of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next American Economy project.

Miller’s article and interview focus on the issue of how labor unions must adapt to the new economy. This has been a central concern of Keystone Research Center since our creation in the mid-1990s (see, for example, here, here, and here).

Overlapping Miller’s view, our position has been that unions need to become more multi-employer and that the association of unions with individual companies or work sites was a unique and temporary aspect of U.S. manufacturing-based industrial unionism. We have also argued that unions of the future will often be anchored within regional service industries that are (mostly) non-mobile because they will have to operate in proximity to their geographically localized customers. Here we are thinking of unions in service industries such as janitorial services, retail, fast food, other restaurants, health care, and higher education (within which contingent faculty are now organizing metro campaigns in Philadelphia and elsewhere).

In addition, Miller and Sipp highlight the growing importance of occupational networks that extend beyond geographic regions. And they highlight that there is positive, as well as negative, potential for workers to earn money in more flexible ways than traditional full-time jobs: i.e., through part-time jobs with varied hours, whether at Starbucks, in ride-sharing, or, to use the example of my singer-songwriter daugher, through a combination of employment at Trader Joe’s and managing the rental of two rooms in her house via Airbnb. Realizing the positive potential for workers requires that flexibility about hours serves them as well as the company and customers (so no just-in-time scheduling please). It also requires sharing the benefits of productivity growth (as highlighted in analysis by Dean Baker summarized here). This sharing could happen through area-wide wage and benefit standards (as established, for example, by the fast food wage board in NY) or, yes, through area-wide collective bargaining (as with building trades unions).

What’s most heartening about the Miller brief and her interview with Sipp is the optimistic sense that union forms can be — and are being — adapted to shifts in technology and business organization. These young organizers and social observers do not conflate the death of traditional industrial union forms with an end to unionism in general. That, I suspect, is partly a generational optimism.

Progressives and unionists now in their mid-50s or older experienced the old middle-class economy distintegrate. They understandably went through a long period of mourning. Sipp, Miller, and their peers were barely born in 1980. Their optimism speaks to a growing appetite among a new generation to paint a picture of — and to build– an economy of the future that once again has a robust middle class. This appetite comes not a moment too soon.

Also: if you want to buy that new album by my Nashville singer-songwriter daughter, you can do that here.