This time the union comeback really could be just around the corner | Opinion

An organizing wave in giant corporations and local industries could unite and lift wages for workers of every race and gender

Steve Catanese, president of SEIU Local 668, a union representing thousands of state human services workers, speaks at a press conference on September 11, 2019. The conference was to push for legislative action on a bill to expand state workplace protections for public sector employees. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

By Stephen Herzenberg

Edmund Morris’s 1999 biography Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan is best known for the author’s bizarre ploy of inserting himself, Zelig-like, into reconstructed scenes throughout Reagan’s life. But my main recollection of the book is different. What stuck with me is how much Ronald Reagan was saying the same things in the 1950s as he was saying in 1980 when he won the presidency.

Beginning in 1954, as the host of General Electric Theater, Reagan offered reverent praise for American business and the free market as the foundations of American freedom, prosperity and greatness. He coupled this with attacks on big government and the evils of high taxation.

What changed between the 1950s and 1980 when Reagan won the presidency was not what Reagan was saying, but the context. In the 1950s and 1960s, the economy boomed, prosperity was broadly shared, and inflation was low. By 1980, the nation faced “stagflation”—high inflation and sluggish economic growth—along with rapidly rising imports. His diagnosis that taxes were too high, America was over-regulated—and, oh yes, unions part of the problem not part of the solution (because their wage demands and work rules made America uncompetitive)—resonated. Reagan as president ushered in 40 years of conservative economic policy in America.

What brings my memory of Dutch to mind is that I have been saying the same things for about 30 years myself—about how labor unions could come back in America and provide the foundation for a new era of shared prosperity. I’m thinking that now may finally be when this idea will resonate and spread. (For a fuller discussion of unions and their potential to grow today, see Keystone Research Center’s “State of Working Pennsylvania 2022.”)

The story I have been telling since the 1990s combines the insights of a researcher of early 20th century waitress unions and of late 1980s janitorial union organizers. Both sources suggested that the next labor movement will be anchored by area-wide unions in locally rooted industries. In those industries, companies cannot shut up shop and flee to Tijuana or Beijing. They must stay near their customers—in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, or any other community across our state and nation.

Since I am an economist, and can count jobs, I immediately realized that, despite globalization, most jobs and an even higher share of moderate- and low-wage jobs are in locally rooted industries. Examples of such industries include restaurants of all kinds, supermarkets and other in-person retail, the security guard sector, hospitality, construction, even last-mile delivery (I order online but the package must come to Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County).

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So, from the time Keystone Research Center started operating in December 1995 to the present day, I have been talking about how “new unions for a new economy” embedded in local industries could underpin a “new deal for a new economy.” For much of this 27-year period, when I offered up this prescription, it would elicit some version of “huh? What is he on about?” No one has ever called me the “Great Communicator.”

But now, the context has changed. By this point we have had 40 years of rising inequality. We have had the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which convinced all but a few conservative “inequality deniers” that, yes indeed, we do have an economy that benefits just a tiny slice of the very rich.

We have seen support for labor unions rise to 68 percent, the highest level since the 1950s—because most Americans recognize a need for more balance in our labor market and our politics and that unions are the most powerful option for achieving that balance.

We have seen the share of nonunion workers who would vote for a union if they had a chance rise to about 50%, up from a third in the 1990s and the 1970s.

And we have seen a wave of new organizing anchored in local industries such as home care, child care, and higher education, within which SEIU in Boston, the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, and the American Federation of Teachers in Philadelphia have metro-wide projects.

In recent months, organizing in local industries has burst into national consciousness thanks to the unionization of roughly 200 Starbucks across the country, including 15 and counting in Pennsylvania.

The Starbucks example points to one modification since 1995 to my thinking about how we get a union comeback: this could come through the confluence of organizing in the giants of the American economy and of local industries.

Big companies have come to dominate more and more of U.S. industries nationally and regionally since the 1990s. Big companies may be viciously anti-union—think Walmart and, in health care in Pennsylvania, UPMC. But if they are organized, their sheer size and their demonstration effects make fast union membership growth possible.

This happened at General Motors in 1937 and 1938, when a sit-down strike at one plant sparked companywide organization, and then unionization of Ford, Chrysler, and auto suppliers. It helps that, if the biggest companies in a regional or national market get unionized, they have an incentive to encourage the unionization of their competitors, too, to take wages and benefits out of competition.

Amazon is another giant company where workers have achieved a watershed victory recently. In terms of capital mobility, and the ability to shut down any warehouse that unionizes, Amazon is an intermediate case. The company needs facilities near all its customers and transportation routes from suppliers to customers. Since Pennsylvania is between many places that make products (the Midwest, Asia) and large numbers of customers, Amazon has no choice but to have a significant presence in Pennsylvania.

Summing up, the prospects are better now than ever for a union comeback to go viral through the intersection of union organizing in giant corporations and in locally rooted industries tied to where their customers are.

In local industries, workers and unions can make progress one community at a time—in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh coffee shop sectors, for example. Once they get a foothold in one community, big corporate structures can serve as a conduit for union organizing from one community to another—as has happened at Starbucks.

An organizing wave in giant corporations and local industries could unite and lift wages for workers of every race and gender.

Of course, some corporations and anti-union politicians will fight tooth-and-nail to crush this incipient mass movement and preserve the 1 percent economy. That makes the choices voters make in November critical: if Pennsylvanians elect a new governor and legislature that have workers interest at heart, Pennsylvania can consolidate a new era of shared prosperity.

Stephen Herzenberg is an economist and the executive director of the Keystone Research Center, a labor-friendly think-tank. He writes from Harrisburg.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.