In our interviews with the leaders profiled in this book, it struck us how clear they were about what needs to be done to ensure that people can achieve economic dignity. As they shared deep personal stories, including their struggles to manage the changes in work, the economy, and our politics as a nation, they were certain that this is all about choices. Choices we make as a people and as a nation. Choices that those with immense power make. Choices that we make as movements. To influence these choices and shape future changes, working people need to be able to exercise collective power and action to create a future that offers opportunities for mobility, human prosperity, and economic dignity.
Through this journey of listening, observing, and writing, and through our own histories and experiences, we learned about the needs and opportunities for our movement today. The journey also affirmed our initial goals and hypotheses. All of us want to live in a healthy democracy where our opinions and contributions really matter. Collective bargaining is fundamental to building a healthy democracy by creating pathways for elevating the decisions of workers alongside those of employers. And in an era of advanced global capitalism, where financialization, fissured employment, and entrenched white supremacy and patriarchy exist, collective bargaining must be expanded to meet the needs of modern workers, addressing all the ways that they interact with the economy.
What is more, we are not starting from scratch. Many workers—including those profiled in these pages—are already experimenting with how to expand collective bargaining to include bargaining for the common good, with the ultimate profiteer or with a corporate landlord.
Building a base of working people who desire collective bargaining power on all fronts as a fundamental right will require an aggressive assertion of the values that undergird our belief in democracy—political and economic. Only then can we ensure that our wins take root as common societal values that are codified in our laws.
This requires smart organizing, culture change strategies that shift our everyday behaviors, norms, and vision of what is possible, and the proliferation of a new school of thought that centers around our shared stories and self-interests that we are stronger when working together. We need a movement that can evolve the legal, policy, organizing, and cultural frameworks of the last century. A movement that can design a new social contract for the twenty-first century. A movement that understands the necessity of centering the fight against white supremacy and white nationalism. A movement that can engage working people as whole people and imagine a new set of supports and systems that allow people to live as their full selves. And a movement that is deeply rooted in the values of respect, dignity, agency, and collectivity.
It is a common lament that our politicians are so out of touch, but truth be told most of us are out of practice with what it means to come together and solve problems with people outside of our immediate friends and family. As essayist Yoni Applebaum has argued, Americans are going to have to get back in the habit of democracy. It is not just that people are not joining unions; they also are not joining parent-teacher associations, church associations, rotaries, and other volunteer groups with democratically elected positions within their communities. This decline in civic participation mirrors the decline in political participation. We need to remind each other of our collective power—and the pride that comes from joining together to demand an end to segregation, polluted air and water, unregulated prescription drug prices, and child labor as well as to fight for public support for parks and public education, roads and highways, and a social safety net.
Millions of people are hungry for more tools and venues for collective action. Thankfully there are stories of people banding together to make a positive change that we can take cues from and that demonstrate that people are open to and even desiring of collective models. Some of these models are embedded within this book. And there are many others. There are the neighborhoods in Flint coming together to demand clean water for their families; the students at Parkland High School who ignited a new youth movement and political will to enact commonsense gun laws; a growing number of people banning together to push for criminal justice reforms; the growth of the #MeToo movement among women across many sectors of the economy; people standing together to end family separation; the Standing Rock protest that mobilized many supporters and through which many Native American workers asserted that the choice between good jobs and clean water for their communities is a false one; and global youth mobilizations for climate change.
And this has only continued with the organizing of essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and the uprisings of Black activists against the state-sanctioned violence on Black bodies led by the Movement for Black Lives. The crises of this moment are deeply intertwined. Ending police violence, shifting government spending away from law enforcement to human-centered programs like job creation and education, and giving working people access to the health care, job safety, and fundamental human dignity they deserve—all of these are essential steps whose urgency has been highlighted by recent headlines, and all must be goals of the movement we seek to build.
Our movement must tend to the fundamental work of revitalizing democracy because working people cannot improve their lives without gaining an effective collective voice in shaping their world on and off the job. To do this we must be able to engage, excite, and even work on behalf of broad swaths of people outside of our institutions. Only then can we build the power we need to win the changes that will ensure that each of us can achieve economic dignity.
One of our major takeaways from the wave of teachers’ strikes referenced in this book is that we must nurture and catalyze demand not just for unions but also for all forms of democratic and collective decision-making in our culture, building a movement that embodies the values of agency and the participation of the majority. This can be modeled through the work and successes of our movement, but it must also live within our broader culture.
To build the collective will and power we need to achieve our vision, we must create profound shifts in how people think and feel about collective bargaining power and the ability to govern all aspects of their lives. For far too long any discussion about bargaining and unions has been centered on the legal processes governing a small select grouping of people with official union recognition, stripping away the “why and what” we are trying to achieve through the process of collective bargaining. We must shift our culture to value respect, dignity, agency, and collectivism so that all of our wins take root as values, not just laws that can be overturned or undermined.
We need a strategy to reach the hearts and minds of everyday people in addition to engaging and learning from their views on the relationship between economic democracy, governance, and building collective bargaining power. We need a narrative environment that promotes our values of dignity, respect, and agency. We need to consistently tell our stories, however small or big, of how people can be more powerful together than alone in order to win over more people to take action with us.
We are facing many choices as a people and as a nation. We can let others imagine a future that benefits a handful of people, or we can imagine and act on a future that benefits us all for generations to come. The West African proverb “I am a citizen of a world not yet born” has inspired us to embrace this moment of change.
We have a blank canvas before us and an amazing history to build upon as a labor movement. We are witnessing the beginnings of a new movement not yet fully formed. It is up to us to keep our eyes on the prize, to push beyond the existing structures, and to imagine tomorrow by taking risks today to create a democracy worth fighting for.