The Resurrection of American Labor

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- According to the official records, U.S. workers went on strike seven times during 2017. That’s a particular nadir in the long decline of organized labor: the second-fewest work stoppages recorded by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics since the agency started keeping track in the 1940s.

There was little reason to believe 2018 would be different, especially with the U.S. Supreme Court, in two decisions, making it harder for public employees unions to fund themselves and restricting workers’ rights to bring class actions. The power of employers appeared to be almost limitless. The unions were, if not busted, then certainly on the verge.

Aggrieved workers, however, took matters into their own hands, using social media and other tech tools to enhance their campaigns. From industry walkouts to wildcat teachers’ strikes, they made very public demands of their employers. The official number of major work stoppages recorded by the BLS in 2018 nearly tripled, to 20. Off the picket line, workers also won a wide range of concessions. Facing employee pressure, Google and McKinsey & Co. dropped contracts for government work employees found objectionable; thousands of dismissed Toys “R” Us workers got a severance fund; and Starbucks Corp. expanded parental and sick leave policies.

In many cases, workers and their advocates bypassed their employers entirely. Under continued pressure, the American Hotel & Lodging Association reversed its opposition to panic buttons to protect housekeepers from sexual harassment by guests. Model Alliance, an advocacy group for models, persuaded the organizers of New York Fashion Week to provide private changing areas. “Workers aren’t waiting for the traditional forms of organizing, as provided under labor law,” says Tom Kochan, co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research. “They’re looking for new options, whether that’s Google employees on a one-day walkout or workers filing online petitions with their management about everything from scheduling to fringe benefits.”

Kochan has been studying what academics call “worker voice”—how much influence employees feel they have over their working conditions—since the 1970s. At the beginning of his career, about one-quarter of workers were represented by a union and another third, according to a national Quality of Employment Survey, said they’d join one if they had an opportunity. The next time the question was fielded, in the mid-’90s, workers’ interest in joining a union had barely budged.

Kochan and his colleagues put the question to almost 4,000 workers in 2017. The results: Almost 2 out of 3 said they had less of a voice than they felt they deserved, and nearly half said they’d like the opportunity to join a union. “That doesn’t mean they want an actual union in the traditional sense,” Kochan says. “It’s more of an expression that they’re looking for some form of voice, a desire for real influence.”

Historically, only unions could provide the cohesiveness and leverage workers needed to speak as a group. Now workers have Facebook and Twitter, both to talk among themselves and to make their case to their employers in a potentially embarrassing way. Technology has given rise to a new set of tools—targeted ads to reach disillusioned workers, text blasts to engage them, online petitions to make demands clear.

In 2014 thousands of workers at Market Basket, a New England grocery chain known for decent wages and other employee-friendly policies, found one another on Facebook and mounted a strike to demand the company’s board reinstate the recently fired chief executive officer. That action points to some of the freedoms enjoyed by nonunion protesters. The Market Basket strikers included workers at all levels of the enterprise, managers and workers together. And what they wanted and ultimately got—the return of the CEO—was outside the purview of wages, hours, and benefits covered by a typical collective bargaining agreement.

Around the same time, a pair of tech-savvy activists with labor roots, Michelle Miller and Jess Kutch, launched Coworker.org, which creates networks of employees and provides them with tools so they can push for pretty much anything they feel would improve their working lives. Tired of finding hypodermic needles in store bathrooms, Starbucks employees used Coworker.org to petition the company for needle disposal containers. Publix Super Markets Inc. worker Brandon Wesley gathered more than 20,000 signatures for his “Let us wear beards” petition, which asked the supermarket to reconsider its dress code. Instacart Inc. workers waged a campaign against the grocery delivery company’s pay practices; on Feb. 6, the company announced changes to its most controversial policies.

Whether on Coworker, Facebook, or deep in the threads of Reddit, “this is only going to spread,” Kutch says. “It’s starting in a few parts of the workforce, but in 10 to 20 years it’s going to be the norm for independent digital communities to be present in every major company.”

The internet allows individual workers to go public with experiences that trigger public outcry. The results can be swift and, often, far more severe than they might be for complaints made internally. On Twitter, the #MeToo movement was at its core a mass action by women against workplace harassment, intimidation, and bullying, and it brought about the downfall of hundreds of senior executives.

Even small incidents can provoke mass outrage. About a year ago, a Banana Republic clerk wrote on Facebook that her district manager had told her to remove the box braids she wore because they were “too urban” and “unprofessional.” Her post was shared more than 16,000 times and, soon after, the company said the manager had been fired.

Some 230 new worker groups have sprung up in the past decade, forming the backbone of what’s come to be called alt.labor. Among them, Organization United for Respect, known as OUR, has become expert at uniting workers through technology. Spun out of a movement by Walmart workers to petition the country’s biggest employer for change after several traditional union drives failed, the group has broadened its mandate to include all low-wage workers, particularly in retail.

When Toys “R” Us, preparing for liquidation, said it wouldn’t pay severance to more than 30,000 employees, OUR organizers stepped in. They ran online ads to reach workers, connecting them first with a peer-to-peer texting tool, then one-on-one phone calls, then committee calls. The workers gathered in Facebook groups to commiserate, share strategies, and organize demonstrations online and in real life. Eventually, KKR and Bain Capital, the company’s private equity owners, agreed to put up $20 million for ex-employees—short of the $75 million workers say they’re owed but a concession the firms weren’t legally obliged to make. OUR is now putting Sears Holdings Corp. employees in touch with Toys “R” Us workers who can preach the power of collective action.

Like roughly 95 percent of all retail workers, Toys “R” Us and Sears employees aren’t in a union. Historically, retail’s been a hard industry to organize. Unions were built when the U.S. economy was powered by factories employing thousands of people. When it comes to retail, there are just too many stores, with too few employees attached to each, turnover is high, and management is often quite hostile. The same is true for restaurants. Even big companies with thousands of workers on one campus—Google or Tesla Inc., for example—are a mix of vendors, contractors, employees, supervisors, and managers who can’t often be represented by a traditional union.

Beyond the growing number of union alternatives, demonstrations by employees are part of a rise in political activity overall. The years since the 2016 election have witnessed the largest protests in U.S. history, inspiring a lot of people—particularly college-educated twentysomethings—to demonstrate for the first time. And while a Black Lives Matter protest or a Women’s March on Washington may seem unrelated to work, they can inspire people to speak out for other causes.

“I think there’s a real desire for working people to not segment their lives so much,” says Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. Companies know that, too. That’s why places such as Comcast, Facebook, and Google gave workers time off to join political protests in 2016. The problem, Block says, is that political issues are often workplace issues, too. “Immigration, racial justice, gender equality—people are seeing these things as interconnected, and that’s giving rise to movements that aren’t so easy to characterize but are very powerful.”

Companies are working as hard as ever to prevent workers from coming together—in any way, traditional or via social media. The Supreme Court has so far been sympathetic. Buried in the language of one 2018 decision was a hint of further curtailments. For years the National Labor Relations Act has been assumed to protect workers acting together, whether to form a union or otherwise, Block says. “The court signaled they might be interested in revisiting the legal protections for workers acting outside a union context, which would mean you could be fired for engaging in any kind of collective activity. That would be really serious.”

At the moment, a tight labor market and companies’ fears of bad publicity provide some protection. But just some. If unemployment rises or executives begin to ignore public outcries, workers become far more vulnerable.

Organizers are also thinking about the potential costs of their tech tools, especially when it comes to privacy and security. Coworker.org introduced a secure drop at the request of tech workers who use its platform. The future, Kutch says, is in using the internet for leadership development. “In many ways, it looks more traditional: How do we create new institutions that can be a power center for workers?” she says. “The internet is one way to do that, but it’s not the only way.”

Unions continue to make the case for their relevance—and have been reinvigorated by all the nontraditional labor activism. At least 18 states raised the minimum wage, a victory for the union-backed “Fight for $15.” Similarly, after popular upswells, at least three more states and three more cities added paid sick time laws—reforms usually advocated by unions.

There are still advantages to being in a union. Among recently dismissed journalists, the unionized ones at HuffPost, per their collective bargaining agreement, were reportedly entitled to at least two months of severance pay, while those at BuzzFeed—who have no union—had to take to Twitter to persuade the company to pay out accrued vacation time. “Everyone’s seen the value, in weeks like these,” says Carolina Moreno, a HuffPost health enterprise reporter, whose job was eliminated. “Sometimes the bottom line wins and people lose—it’s a possibility, and you have to prepare for it. Unionizing is one of the solutions to that dynamic.”

Almost 15 million Americans still pay dues. Increasingly, some of that funds alternative, nonunion groups. The National Education Association is a broad supporter of Red for Ed, a loose campaign of teachers; on a local level, the California Federation of Teachers funds the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, an advocacy group for low-income communities of color. Before Los Angeles teachers went on strike in January, ACCE members and other groups helped shape demands that went beyond wages to include smaller class sizes and more social services.

“We’re not constrained by some of the legal constraints that unions are bound by, nor by the politics or protocols,” says Amy Schur, the ACCE campaign director. “We’re on the outside—we don’t have a contractual relationship or even a formal one with the school board, and that broadens out the range of tactics.” So, for example, after the teachers walked out, ACCE members not only joined them in demonstrations but then showed up at the school board president’s house in the pouring rain to stage a loud protest. “I don’t know that the union was ready to escalate like that,” Schur says. “But we were.”

--With assistance from Josh Eidelson.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Howard Chua-Eoan at hchuaeoan@bloomberg.net

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