You are labor. I am labor. Everyone who works for a living is labor. So why are we getting our asses kicked?
I spent the past few days in St. Louis at the AFL-CIO convention, where America’s biggest coalition of labor unions gathers every four years to elect leaders and pass resolutions and give a lot of speeches about what is being and should be done. (I was technically attending as a representative of our union, the Writers Guild of America East, rather than as an impartial journalist, so take this for what it’s worth.) There was much talk of the good things unions do: They raise wages for workers, and balance the power in the workplace, and fight discrimination, and make the world a fairer and more progressive place. We all agreed on the bad things that Wall Street and big corporations and right wing politicians are doing. We all agreed on just about everything. And, as sure as I am that unions are important and Wall Street is greedy, I am equally sure that all of our mutual agreement will not do this world a bit of good.
You are probably not a union member. How do I know? Because only 10.7% of American workers are union members. Excluding government employees, that percentage drops to only 6.4%. It’s a safe bet you’re not. But you do live in a capitalist country. All of the money that is made goes either to people who work, or people who just own money. The only way for workers to get a fair share of the money that is made in America is to join together to bargain for their interests. That represents a balanced capitalist system. Labor and capital in balance, sharing the proceeds of work based on fair negotiation. The only way to negotiate collectively in America is through a labor union. And when nine out of ten of you don’t have a labor union, nine out of ten of you are getting screwed, because the people who pay you have more power than you, and will therefore keep more of the proceeds of your work than they would in a fair negotiation. And this is exactly what is happening in America. Forty years of rising economic inequality and stagnant wages for workers are the proof. That inequality is not just unfair; it is a destabilizing force in our society, squelching the American Dream and producing (justified) hopelessness and anger that will continue to worsen until that underlying inequality is fixed. If you think that our political situation is bad today, just wait. Unless we rebalance our economic structure and turn around the growth of inequality, it will get worse. I guarantee it.
In order to change this deep trend of economic inequality, in which people with money are able to take a greater and greater share of wealth for themselves, the imbalance of power in this country must change. This can be done in two ways. Either the federal government can do it with laws and taxes and redistribution of wealth—and this is not happening any time soon—or labor, meaning you and me and everyone who works for a living, can increase our own power so that we can take a fairer share of the proceeds of American business. This is how important unions are today. They are the only realistic tool to fix the most fundamental problem in our country. As long as unions represent a ten percent share (and declining) of workers, the inequality problem will never turn around. There is simply not enough power to stop that ball from rolling downhill.
So we need more union members. To the AFL-CIO’s credit, they know this. Everyone does. There was much talk in St. Louis of organizing new workers. There was a resolution passed vowing that organizing new members is the top priority. This is nice, as well as meaningless. We have some major problems here. The AFL-CIO is a group of 56 separate unions. With some notable exceptions, most of those unions have been around for many decades, and are attached to specific industries, and when those industries decline, the unions decline along with them, barnacles clinging stoically to the side of sinking ships. There are many reasons that union membership has been declining for my entire lifetime, but perhaps the biggest one is that the world of organized labor does not model itself in any way like the world of labor in general. Labor, remember, is all the workers in America. Companies rise and fall, industries come and go, new technology takes over and then becomes obsolete; through it all, there are workers, ready to work in each new company or industry or field at a moment’s notice. Labor moves naturally in tandem with the economy. If we want organized labor to do the same, that means that unions must be able, at a moment’s notice, to move wherever the jobs may be, just like workers themselves do. Unions cannot see themselves as institutions entrenched in a specific business; they must always, always, be ready to organize new workers in new industries in new places. Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter what you do for work—you work in a capitalist system, and that means that you need collective bargaining in order to ensure a fair balance of power, and that means that you need a union. Unions must be there for you wherever you are. Always.
How well have the unions of our nation done at this task? Well, the five biggest companies in America are all tech companies. None of them are unionized. The answer is, unions have failed to go where the economy goes. This matters not because big tech employees are the most important workers in America, but because if you understand that unions are a structural need that should be present in most every workplace, their complete absence from the five most valuable workplaces in America is indicative of their failure to be responsive to the changes in work itself. And this failure has made unions as a movement weak. And that allows inequality to rise. And that hurts all of us. If our ideal future is for every workplace to have a union, our actual future—if current trends continue—is for unions to shrink to a tiny island of a few million fortunate workers in a sea of hundreds of millions of unorganized people at the mercy of their employers.
Earlier this year, I attended a convention of hedge fund managers. There, in a ballroom at The Bellagio in Las Vegas, were several hundred men who control tens of billions of dollars and want nothing more than to maximize the return they get by investing it. The men in that room likely have more influence over the future of the American workplace than the 14.6 million union members in America. That is sickening. That is unjust. And that is the truth. It does not have to be the truth; grow those union membership numbers enough and eventually you will see scale tip. But the hole we are in is very deep.
The theme of this year’s AFL-CIO convention is, “Join Together. Fight Together. Win Together.” I would like to suggest a more accurate theme: “Failure.” We are in a situation in which is critical for America that we recruit millions of new union members. Instead, for decades now, union membership has declined each year. And each year when those union membership figures are released, all of us who consider ourselves a part of the labor movement—from the president of the AFL-CIO to the president of your local union to me—should look in the mirror and know that, once again, we have failed. If we are not increasing the percentage of union members enough to change the balance of power in our economy that is causing the inequality that is driving the most basic social and political problems that afflict us, we are failing. I do not think that the keynote speech at a union convention should be celebratory. I think it should be an exploration of our failure. Failure is bitter. But that bitterness is what lends the urgency to our task.
It is true that unions do a lot of great things. Of course! That is why all these people come to a union convention. Intrinsic to believing in unions, though, is the belief that we are all in this together. Everyone who works for a living has a common interest in a fair society that provides for all. And by that standard, those of us lucky enough to have unions have not done what we need to do in order to give that same gift to everyone else in our country. The only relevant things that unions should be discussing are: How do we organize millions of new members? And how do we pay for it? Unions, once established, are self sustaining from the dues of their members, but if you want to, say, double the number of union members in America, someone needs to hire a lot of union organizers and set them up in a lot of places and fund their work until they can actually build those organizations and achieve independence. Probably the single most meaningful thing that the AFL-CIO could do today would be to establish a venture capital fund to pay for new organizing across the country—the creation of new unions in new places, even if they are not immediately members of the AFL-CIO. This is what it means to have an actual movement. The unions of today can pay to create the unions of tomorrow. We all are in this together. And if you can unionize Google today, those dues can pay to organize a whole lot of janitors and fast food workers tomorrow.
Capitalism has a distribution problem that cannot be fixed unless labor is stronger. It’s that simple. Turning around the decline in union membership. Turning around the rise in inequality. These are the things that matter. Each year we fail to do these things, we fail. Where are the new members, and where is the money to organize them? That is everything now. It would be awful to find that four years from now, at the next AFL-CIO convention, everything had gotten worse.