Anyone following the labor movement today could be forgiven for thinking it’s one-dimensional. The museums are unionizing. The academics are unionizing. The media is unionizing. The political workers and nonprofit workers and tech workers are unionizing. Has organized labor become white collar? Not at all. We all wear the same collar. It’s called CAPITALISM.
Far be it from me, a hack writer who grasps desperately at anything resembling a trend so that I may fulfill my daily quota of bullshit, to criticize anyone for spying a “trend” in the union world. The fact is that union membership has been in a critical decline for decades; there has been a surge of highly visible organizing and strike activity over the past several years, and much of it has been done by professional employees. It may be easy to conclude from this that unions themselves—as an institution, as a practice, as a method—are changing in some way that makes them no longer suited for low-wage workers lower down the economic scale, and more suited to professionals who work in offices.
It is true that there has been a wave of (more or less) professional union organizing in the past five years or so. The union wave that has swept the media has been highly visible, because it’s the media, and the academic world has seen both a ton of organizing on college campuses and huge strikes among public school teachers across the country. It is true that white collar workers have been unionizing lately. This is a good thing. White collar workers should unionize. But they should unionize for the same reason that blue collar workers should: because everyone should unionize. Unions are the fix for a structural imbalance of power in the workplace—an imbalance that exists in all workplaces under capitalism. That imbalance may manifest itself in more atrocious ways in a hot, dangerous, low-paid factory than in the offices of a media company, but in both places, a union acts to even out a tilted field in which employers have much more power than their employees.
In awful workplaces full of oppression, it is often the awfulness and oppression that provides the initial motivation to unionize. But in less awful workplaces, the motivation can come when employees grasp the nature of that inherent power imbalance; when they understand that, despite the free office snacks, they are at the complete mercy of the whims of the boss, of the manager, of the CEO, of the far-off investors; that, even though they have a much nicer office environment than a factory worker does, they are both equally powerless when it comes to having a say in what happens to them at work.
This realization is the seed of solidarity. It is a good thing. When working people realize the one-sided nature of the power arrangement that they have found themselves in without ever signing up for it, they become very enthusiastic about change. They organize unions, and use those unions to give themselves a level of agency and control over their working lives that they never had before. And, crucially, they may also come to understand that they have a lot more in common with other working people than they thought. A professional who works in a hospital or a college or a media company or an office building may not have considered that their nice job has an important similarity to the jobs of fast food workers and construction workers and domestic workers and janitors—and, even more importantly, that there is something that they can do to improve the working lives of all types of people who have never set foot inside their nice offices. This is the broadening of solidarity. And this is where individual unions become a labor movement.
The labor movement is what connects all of us in our unionized Manhattan office to the millions of other working people across the country: poor ones and rich ones and happy ones and oppressed ones and blue collar and white collar ones alike. This is not just some happy slogan. It is the fundamental basis of the power of organized labor, which comes from everyone joining together for common, righteous goals. Everyone. The more of the economy that the labor movement captures, the stronger the labor movement gets; the stronger the labor movement gets, the better it can fight against the imperatives of capital, which have so far resulted in a nonstop rise in economic inequality during my lifetime. For the truck drivers in Iowa and the nurses in the Bronx, it is important that we unionized the tech workers in Silicon Valley. Why? Because all of the new workers that we unionize should get plugged into the labor movement. In a well-functioning labor movement, some of the dues money from well-paid Google employees can be deployed to organize fast food workers across the country. Likewise, when the fast food workers go on strike, the professors and the journalists and the techies should be there to support them, because we are all on the same team. A movement like this, that spans the economy from top to bottom, funded by workers ourselves, deploying resources where they are needed, providing mutual support, is a fearsome weapon for every single working person in America. This is the sort of labor movement that will turn the tide of inequality back again. This is the sort of labor movement that Wall Street will fear. This is what we need. Everybody plays a part. All the parts are important. We all have one another’s backs.
This is the goal. Clearly, we have a long way to go to get there. After a half-century of decline, unions today cover barely 10% of workers in this country. And that coverage is not evenly spread; though five of the six most valuable companies in America are tech companies, for example, none of them are unionized. In order to exert the sort of power that we need, the labor movement must expand into every part of the economy. (And then we must all learn to work together, which is another discussion.) Unions do not exist just to help those in one workplace; they exist as pillars of a movement that must be strong enough to pull the entire multi-trillion-dollar economy towards higher wages and more equality for working people and less for the investment class. We are out to move a mountain, and we need a huge fucking army to help, pulling from one side and pushing from the other. We need to build an army for a war that is about not just money, but power. Every person with a job should be a soldier in this war, because the war will be fought for their own benefit. Every new union adds to the labor movement’s strength. We need them all. We need the teachers. We need the reporters. We need the doctors, and the nurses, and the engineers, and the programmers, and the advertising people, and the designers. We need the retail employees and the fast food workers and restaurant servers. We need the people who built your house, the people who bring your mail, the people who direct traffic, the people who stock your grocery shelves, and the people who clean up after us. We need everyone, because we have a big job. The fact that unions are expanding where they haven’t been before is not a sign of division; it’s a sign that things are working properly.
It doesn’t matter who you are. We need you. Organize, and let’s go.