The future of work looks union free: Does it matter?

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.