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Summary:

The future of work, a lot of commentators seem to agree, is shaping up to have a lot more independent contractors, contingent workers, freelancers and the like, and fewer regular full-time employees. But these folks can’t join unions of bargain collectively. Does it matter?

the future of work and labor unions

The future of work, a lot of commentators seem to agree, is shaping up to have many more independent contractors, contingent workers, freelancers and the like, and a lot fewer regular full-time, office-based employees. Whether that change empowers workers or undermines them is a much more contentious question.

Sure, working for yourself can be empowering and, by spreading the risk of losing a job across a range of clients, actually offers an increase in job security for some, but independent contractors can’t join traditional unions (though the Freelancers Union aims to provide some of the same services) or engage in group bargaining. Does this matter?

The AFL-CIO met last Thursday to discuss the question, hosting a forum entitled The Future of Work and New Ways to Build Power.  (For those looking for the really deep dive, a video of the 90-minute webcast is available here.) A quicker round-up of the discussion comes courtesy of labor relations blog In These Times, which reports:

“We all carry around the mental mood of the workplace, where we have an employer and a worker. And our laws respond to that. But that no longer corresponds to reality,” panelist David Weil of Boston University said Thursday at “The Future of Work and New Ways to Build Power,” held in Washington D.C.

More than 10 million U.S. workers are currently classified as independent contractors and not allowed to organize legally…. The only way organized labor may be able to fight for these workers is by engaging in nontraditional labor campaigns that do not seek traditional collective bargaining arrangements at their heart.

Some in the labor movement sees the New York taxi drivers’ 15-year effort to win pay increases and improve working conditions as an example of how the labor movement can fight for workers in industries traditionally difficult to organize.

“We need to follow lead of the taxi drivers alliance,” says Justin Molito, an organizer with Writers Guild of America East. “The decentralized nature of work is creating a new decentralized nature of resistance they will not be able to stop.”

Of course, labor union membership has been on the decline in the U.S. for years, with a tiny 6.9 percent of private sector workers belonging to a union in 2010. Connected work and the rise of the so-called “gig economy” clearly isn’t responsible for this decline.

But that doesn’t mean the decline of unions won’t affect how well the future of work provides for workers of the future. Already many commentators feel that the feeble state of unions has something to do with rising inequality and fewer Americans sharing in the fruits of economic growth. It remains to be seen if independent workers can use decentralized resistance, or some other means, to get a square deal from employers without collective bargaining.

Are you worried about workers being able to advocate for themselves and protect their rights in a future full of independent contractors?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Fibonacci Blue.

  1. Of course it matters.I have not been a big fan of unions,but i have to say that the trend of the last few years Where the fruits of American business increasingly go to the top percentile of Americans while the remaining 90 percent get poorer, coincides with the Decrease in union power. Sooner or later that must be corrected or American capitalism will cease to exist as we know it.

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  2. Margy Rydzynski Wednesday, October 26, 2011

    Workers need representation and bargaining power, no matter where or how they make their living. It’s a sure way to beat the economic inequality that has led to where we are right now.

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  3. Unions were a great thing when they first started, now they’re part of the problem. Buckle down on Union rules or do away with them.
    example union day I deal with (note this happens daily, I cant do anything about it)
    start work at 7..means starting getting dressed out at 7, no work, get to work site around 7:45 ish, work 1 hr then
    9 o’clock break…have to leave 15mins before 9 to get back to “shop” at 9 take 15+ min break, get back to work around 10, work 1.75hrs, oh lunch time! get back from lunch around 1, work a bit, then another break, blah blah get back, then time to go wash up and change at 3 to leave at 3:30 (next day rinse/repeat)
    so in a 8 “hour” day they make work…4 hours if that sad sad sad

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    1. There was a time when a union was about safe working conditions (now covered by a ton of regulation) and peer training. Now it’s only about “fair wages”. I don’t need someone to tell me when to stand up for myself, or when it’s more important to work and “cross a picket line”. I have seen firsthand how unions will strongarm their members and have seen many new teachers leave the profession due to being rag-dolled by senior union members.

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  4. Businesses are not jobs programs. Another thing….do people lack spine? If you continue to work at a business (govt) then you’re not underpaid. If you continue to work at a business conditions must not be that bad.

    People aren’t slaves….if it’s bad…leave. Your ancestors probably came to the US with little in their pocket and not even speaking the language but you can’t relocate to another town. Are you all that much of sissies?

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  5. Unions made sense back in the days of company towns, where if you didn’t like the deal the company offered you really had very few choices. Today, there are plenty of opportunites available and web-base workers have even more opportunities.

    Unions foster a lowest-common denomonator mentality where there is no incentive for an individual to try any harder than anyone else. The fact that the unions work very hard to protect their members from any accountability shows that they really don’t care about doing a good job, they only care about getting as much as possible for themselves, even to the detrament of the employer. Sometimes the unions act like they would rather drive the employer into bankrupcy than give an inch. If union workers were really doing the job that much better than non-union workers, employers wouldn’t need to be strongarmed into hiring union labor.

    As Mr. Writing says, if you think you are getting a raw deal from your employer, quit your complaining and go get another job.

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  6. Alexander White Saturday, October 29, 2011

    Living in Australia, with a relatively strong union movement compared to the USA, living conditions and wages are much higher, job security is better, there is free health care and we have amazing superannuation pension schemes, the benefits of unions is clear.

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