Yes! Millennials SHOULD Lead the Next Labor Movement

Stephen Herzenberg |
Kashana Cauley, a writer for “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” published a column yesterday, “Why Millennials Should Lead the Next Labor Movement,” to which I say “hallelujah.”
Since Keystone Research Center began operating in December 1995, we have argued that the main answer to economic inequality is labor unions that fit the industries and jobs of today and the future.

More specifically, we have argued that area-wide unions of workers from service industries could light the spark of the next upsurge in unions  the “next New Deal.” (See, for example, this academic article by our former research director Howard Wial. See also this shorter article from 1998, “New Unions for a New Economy.” See also these previous blogs [e.g., here and here] and this op ed  one of many on this theme over 21 years.)
By service industries we mean, for example, health care incluiding long-term care; education including early childhood and higher education, and the growing ranks of contingent faculty; janitorial services, security guards, restaurant and fast-food workers; supermarkets and retail more generally (or perhaps we should say retail and distribution); and the taxi, ride sharing, and public transit industries. Service industries now account for most jobs and an even higher share of low-wage jobs. Moreover, they cannot relocate (e.g., to North Carolina, Tijuana, or Beijing) because they deliver services to customers in person. For this reason, if labor unions bring together all workers in any of these industries within a particular metro area or broader region  similar to building trade unions in non-residential construction  they can take wages and benefits out of competition, and negotiate training, credentialing and job security deals tied to the industry in the area rather than the individual employer. Even if technology transforms service delivery and the nature and geographical location of jobs (mostly within the region), area-wide unions would have a fighting chance of negotiating for a share of productivity gains and retraining plus the opportunity to maintain a job in the industry.
Because we think we have a reasonably concrete idea of how these types of unions could restore an economy that works for all, we reject Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “There Is No Alternative” to the Reagan/Thatcher vision and other conservative claims that globalization and technological change unavoidably result in gaping inequality. Such claims are poppycock. AN ECONOMY THAT WORKS FOR ALL IS RIGHT THERE FOR THE TAKING if only a broader community of workers, elected officials, union leaders, and civic leaders could see it.
At times over the past 22 years as we have advocated for this vision, we’ve felt like a voice in the wilderness. A few academics and organizers have made similar arguments, but the idea that area-wide unions could bring back broadly shared prosperity has not penetrated mainstream public policy debate.
In the last few years, however, this has begun to change. First the Occupy Wall Street Movement forced more recognition of inequality and the one percent economy  and the need to do something about it. When Occupy was taunted by the claim “you don’t have any solutions to inequality,” “Fight for $15 and a union” brought new scale to worker organizing on an industrywide basis in service industries.
Some “Fight for $15” organizing has lifted wages industrywide even if unions still negotiate on an individual employer or work site basis (e.g., nursing homes in Pennsylvania). Some of this organizing has brought non-union workers quickly into area-wide, multi-employer collective bargaining agreements (e.g., among security guards in Pittsburgh). In most cases, efforts to form area-wide unions still face adamant employer opposition, but at least the benefits for the community as well as workers of unions that lift up wages within major sectors of the economy has been made more powerfully than at any other time since the 1930s (e.g., health care in Pittsburgh, taxi/ride share drivers in Seattle). In many cases  e.g., fast food workers in cities across the country — industry-wide worker mobilization within geographical areas is just getting off the ground and hints at area-wide unionism rather than there being a clear organizing plan. But even with these reservations, workers and some unions seem to be groping toward a new model of area-wide sectoral unionism. And the more industries and places in which area-wide organizing turns into actual union contracts, the more likely it is that workers in other places and industries will see that this model can lift them up too and their communities leading to a larger scale “I’ll have some of that” and the take-off point for a new labor movement.
It is at this juncture that Cauley’s piece promotes that “hallelujah.” One of the critical ingredients for an upsurge in organizing based on a new paradigm of unionism is a large number of leaders/organizers who are not bound by the (astonishingly powerful but also outdated) ideas and tactics born of the last strong-union era (i.e., mass manufacturing unionism). By definition, millennials came to adulthood and political consciousness at least 20 years after Ronald Reagan.
Cauley clearly articulates that unions, for today’s workers as for her father, are the route to “…a fair wage, reasonable conditions, and the ability to care for a family…”  unions are as important in the new economy as in the old. Cauley does not as clearly articulate the structural shift from U.S. manufacturing unionism to industrywide service unionism (one reason I hope that she will read this blog). It is perhaps not an accident, however, that she is a member of the Writers Guild of America. The Guild sets standards for an occupation scattered across many different employers throughout large geographical regions and the nation as a whole. Cauley lives the reality that unions anchored in individual employers or work sites do not have the leverage to enable millennials (and other workers) to rebuild the middle class. Broader-based unions are needed for that.
I do not mean to downplay the employer, legal, and political obstacles to area-wide, sector-based organizing boosting private sector unionism back to, say, 35%. I do mean to say that a clear, widely-shared recognition of the attainability of that vision would be a huge step forward. I also believe that such an upsurge could also boost union density in construction (reorganizing now heavily Hispanic low-wage regions, for example) and stimulate manufacturing union growth  skill-based manufacturing unions could fix U.S. skill shortages and boost our competitiveness. I also mean to suggest that this kind of upsurge could go a long way to fixing U.S. politics, reenergizing a broad political coalition that can win health care and retirement security for all, 21st century labor standards (no just-in-time scheduling, shorter work time), and trade deals that harmonize labor and environmental standards up not down.
So, Kashana and other millennials (including my own, Charlotte and Tess), thanks for stepping up. We need your help. We need your leadership. Please lead us to that economy that supports rather than destroys working families.