Raquel works at an Amazon fulfillment center on the East Coast, stocking items that will eventually be shipped to homes throughout the region—everything from cans of soup to toilet paper. When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States, millions of families suddenly wanted to buy everything they needed without leaving their homes. As a result, Raquel found herself being publicly referred to for the first time as an essential worker. She is not yet sure whether it is a compliment.
Raquel is the sole provider for her five-year-old child and her mother, who has health problems. After the pandemic started, several of her coworkers were diagnosed with COVID-19 after the company failed to implement social distancing practices or provide personal protective equipment to employees. To protect her family’s health, Raquel stopped going to work, calling in sick for as long as she could. But when her unemployment payments stopped, her student loans started piling up, and as overdue rent payments mounted, eviction loomed. How safe would her family be then?
Leonard lives hundreds of miles from Raquel in a midwestern city where he drives for Uber and Lyft and delivers food for DoorDash. When hailing a ride became dangerous to public health, Leonard found himself in a tough spot. Unlike Raquel, he was not considered essential, and he quickly lost all sources of income. When he applied for unemployment benefits, he discovered he was not qualified because he was not an employee. Despite having been a faithful, rule-following worker for all of the app companies he’d relied on, Leonard was now on his own. What would he and his family do?
The economy is not working for most of us. Too many people are forced to make impossible choices about whether to pay a utility bill, pay for a much-needed prescription drug, or put food on the table. Economic, social, and political shifts from plant closings to outbreaks of disease can devastate entire communities. If workers had a platform that allowed them to engage in decision-making within their companies, their industries, or the economy as a whole before a crisis arrived, they could avoid the kinds of impossible choices faced by Raquel, Leonard, and millions more like them. Why do US workers lack such a platform? In this book, we’ll explore that question.
The prevailing political economy of the United States and much of the world is based on principles originally espoused by Southern slave owners—the paternalistic view that they knew what was best for their (enslaved) workers and that their liberty as individual landowners outweighed the rights of the working women and men who they claimed to own. This fundamental tension has defined our country from its beginning. Historian Eric Foner elaborates on how slavery sits at the root of modern-day conflicts in his book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.1 The Reconstruction period was marked by attempts to build a multiracial US democracy. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery and all forms of forced labor; the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed citizenship to all those born in the United States; and the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed the right to vote to Black men. Each included clauses empowering Congress to enforce these provisions, with the goal of ensuring that Reconstruction would be “the beginning of an extended historical process: the adjustment of American society to the end of slavery.”2 Many of the gains made by social movements from the 1920s through the 1970s were anchored in the same Reconstruction-era principles—women’s suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These gains have been targeted by conservative judges and elected officials who have intentionally, systematically rolled them back, in many case seeking to restore pre–Civil War interpretations of the Constitution.
It naturally follows that the people fighting for dignity in the communities where systems of worker oppression descended from slavery have been in place the longest—namely Black and immigrant workers in the southern region of the United States and people of the global south—have some of the most creative approaches to undermining those systems and building, perhaps for the first time, a healthy democracy.
A healthy democracy is a system in which the majority of people have the ability and mechanisms in place to consult, confer, and collectively govern themselves. Democracy is not just a system of political practices. Democratic principles must also be applied to participation and decision-making in all aspects of our economic lives. While voting, lobbying, and other forms of policy and legal work are important forms of democratic participation, collective bargaining—both at work and elsewhere—applies democratic practices to economic relationships. Without both political and economic democracy, the whole system is compromised.
Collective bargaining, then, is fundamental to democracy. At its best collective bargaining is a system by which working people can exercise collective power in a way that directly confronts the owners of capital and reclaims a portion of that capital for working people and their communities. Collective bargaining allows everyday people to “practice democracy”—directly engaging in the decisions that affect their lives. Collective bargaining affects our lives beyond worksites as well. We all benefit when workers have a platform to prepare for a crisis before it comes. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, essential staff in unionized nursing homes were better prepared to support aging residents, ultimately having 30 percent fewer COVID-19-related deaths than nonunion nursing homes.3
Unfortunately, the number of people in the United States who have been able to engage in collective bargaining has dramatically decreased in the last half-century. In January 2020, the percentage of US workers in unions hovered just above 10 percent, down from over 30 percent in 1954.4
The reason for this dramatic decline is threefold. First, power has shifted from national companies to multinational corporations and then again to hedge funds and other actors of finance capital. The result of this financialization of industry is that executives at the top are focused on maximizing profits without concern for the communities and workers creating those profits. The new global capitalists want to cut labor costs as much as possible, and because unions have the opposite goal of ensuring working people get a fair return on their labor, they must be eliminated.
Second, global executives have been socializing responsibility and risk while further privatizing the profits at the top. This is often described as fissuring the workplace, as it shifts responsibility for everything from labor practices to environmental costs to a series of intermediaries, contractors, subcontractors, and even workers themselves—misclassified as independent contractors and thus prevented from joining or forming unions.5
Last, and a stark reminder of the human role in the decline of union membership, is the growth of an active union-busting industry—including the use of legal firms to help companies prevent their employees from forming unions, coalitions to lobby legislators to weaken protections for workers attempting to organize and collectively bargain, and even the infiltration of business schools to turn what used to be basic courses in labor-management relations into propagandistic forums painting unions as bad for business.6
Because of these shifts economic democracy in the twenty-first century cannot be achieved solely on a practice focused exclusively on worksites supported by the legal framework of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This is simply not enough on its own, even if it hadn’t been systematically eroded to decrease worker participation in unions. Rather, organizers must explore a more expansive definition of collective bargaining that adapts to the context of global capitalism and all its features, including addressing the material and cultural needs of the modern worker. This means ultimately changing the very nature of what a union contract covers, broadening what individuals can negotiate over and who they can negotiate with, from their direct bosses to many other individuals with concentrated power in their sector or community. Company executives negotiate many contracts to formalize a myriad of different economic relationships. Why are workers limited to just one?
Workers have a stake in their ability to come together collectively not only as employees but also in the myriad of other ways working people play a role in the economy. Tenants, debtors, homeowners, consumers, and many others have joined together to directly confront and negotiate with specific forces of capital—corporations, banks, and elements of the state—to ensure dignified lives for themselves and their families. And some of the same forms of power used in a worksite context are also available in these arenas—in particular, the power to collectively withhold participation in an economic relationship in order to force concessions from those who seek to get rich through exploitation.
Collective bargaining is a means to an end, not the end itself. We don’t tell people they have the right to elect a senator; we say they have the right to vote. Likewise, telling people they have the right to form or to join a union misses the point. People must leverage their power to organize and collectively bargain, whatever that needs to look like based on their economic relationship to other stakeholders.
Our ancestors were clear on this when they began embarking, from various positions, on the project of Reconstruction to build a multiracial democracy—politically and economically—in the United States. That project was never brought to fruition. Now we must complete the job. It is with this understanding that we, a southern Black woman and a woman descended from India, attempt to position collective bargaining as a critical pillar in the struggle for democracy, and not just in the current framework we know today. It is time to reclaim our country and the vision that so many of our ancestors intended for our future. It’s not complicated. Those who exploit the labor of other people are not humanitarian. Those who defend the rule of a small minority over the majority are not populists. Those who carry flags of the Confederacy or deface the US flag are not patriots. We must stop legitimizing economic and political systems that do not center workers as leading partners, and we must pick up where we left off in advancing the ideals of Reconstruction.
The good news is that working people have what it takes to do this. In this book we emphasize the importance of centralizing the fight against white supremacy and patriarchy in building and expanding access to collective bargaining. And we do this by showcasing the creative strategy of Black workers, immigrant workers, southern workers, and workers from the global south—designations we are honored to share—as models to be scaled up in ways that viably challenge trends in today’s global economy so that we can build a society that works for all of us. And we highlight these approaches, not simply in pursuit of collective bargaining but also to ensure we all receive a fair return on our labor, to support our families and live with dignity and even (dare we say it?) with joy.
In part 1 of the book, titled “How Did We Get Here?” we will take a look back at US history, particularly through the lens of labor movements. We will start, in chapter 1, by explaining the basic idea of collective bargaining. It is one of the most powerful tools that workers can use to assert their rights, share in governance of the institutions they are part of, and reshape rules, processes, policies, and systems to bring about greater fairness and better lives for all. Yet, as we will see, this powerful tool has become increasingly neglected in recent decades. How and why did this happen? The answer to this question is provided in chapters 2 and 3. As we will explain, at one time the US labor movement helped lead the battle for democratic reforms. It produced valuable breakthroughs in our workplaces—especially the creation of guarantees that were supposed to protect the right to collective bargaining. But labor won limited victories, meaning that the fight for economic democracy was only half-won.
How did the labor movement fall short? We will also address this question. The reasons are complex but include the narrow focus of labor leaders (largely ignoring issues outside the limited topics included in workplace bargaining) and their willingness to exclude too many people: people of color, women, immigrants, the poor, and the otherwise disenfranchised. These mistakes left working people vulnerable to divide-and-conquer strategies. The rich and powerful have used these strategies to impose a highly effective reactionary program on our country. Among other structural assaults, they have largely crippled the labor movement.
Over time, social and economic trends (including the United States’ changing demographics, rising costs of education and health care, the evolving nature of work, globalization of markets and supply chains, and climate change) have made rule by the rich and powerful increasingly oppressive and intolerable. The forces of global capital that ultimately drive these trends have powerful media empires at their disposal that try to conceal the realities of what is happening. But even these propaganda factories cannot completely blind ordinary people to the dire trends unfolding in their own neighborhoods. Every year, more people realize the depth of the crises we face. Something has got to give!
We have seen that the labor movement of the twentieth century did a lot, within its own limitations, to improve the circumstances of working women and men in the United States. But mistakes by labor leaders and changing conditions have left workers vulnerable to a powerful counterattack by the Right. To fight back effectively against the unjust system we face today, we need a new kind of movement for organizing and collective bargaining.
In part 2 of this book, titled “The Building Blocks of Economic Democracy” we will offer some frameworks through which we might create the movement we need. We start in chapter 4 with an articulation of why collective bargaining in the workplace is worth the fight. Here you will meet the first of many worker leaders we were able to talk to in researching this book. Rubynell Walker-Barbee, originally from Detroit, was shocked to find that her coworkers in Atlanta were unaware of their right to form a union. We move on in chapter 5 to discuss the need for a movement that reaches beyond the workplace, representing us as whole people—not just as workers but as citizens, consumers, parents, patients, students, migrants, and more. (In this chapter, Kimberly Mitchell, a retail worker in Washington, DC, makes her case for being more than just a worker.)
And in chapter 6 we discuss the need for a movement that includes and organizes all people—one that fights against white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia, and all other strategies of exclusion, division, and oppression. By failing to practice this strategy of inclusion, parts of the twentieth-century labor movement allowed itself to be robbed of much of the power derived from true solidarity. The twenty-first-century movement must not make the same mistake. Lidia Victoria of Tar Heel, North Carolina, explains how she and her coworkers won by centering a multiracial struggle for dignity at a Smithfield pork processing plant. And Sanchioni Butler explains how her women’s liberation movement happened on the shop floor of an auto-plant in Dallas, Texas.
Last, we need a movement that does not get bogged down in partisan divisions but instead builds organizations based on shared values—which are just as likely to be found in the so-called red states of the South and Midwest as in the blue states states of the West Coast and Northeast that labor organizers and other progressives have traditionally considered more fertile ground for organizing. This is the primary discussion in chapter 7, where we meet Allyson Perry and Heather DeLuca-Nestor, two West Virginia teachers who did not see the political leanings of voters in their red state as a barrier to organizing.
Each chapter of part 3, “The Way We Win,” explains a different aspect of the new movement we need to build. Bettie Douglas, a fast-food employee from St. Louis, shows us why we need a movement that engages the ultimate profiteers in the new global marketplace, targeting and forcing to the bargaining table the individuals and organizations that control the international corporations that now wield most of the power over the lives of working people. Her story is complemented by the reflections of Cynthia Murray, a Walmart associate in Maryland.
We need a movement that uses organized bargaining power to establish true economic democracy, in the workplace and elsewhere—in our communities, our schools, our courthouses, and more. Deloris Wright, a domestic worker and tenant organizer in Brooklyn, illustrates the path for negotiating beyond a traditional worksite. And Jeff Crosby shares a lifetime of experiences that show us why we need a movement that will include the voices of working people in how changes in technology and economics will be implemented in our workplaces and beyond so that the rights and needs of humans outweigh those of any corporation or machine. Applying the principles of collective bargaining to all these arenas will give us a voice and equal power to assert and secure our rights against the wishes of global capital to oppress and exploit us. We will close with some discussion of how to apply these new and expanded frameworks to some of the more current debates surrounding the future of work—from automation to the gig economy.
Even more important—and, we think, exciting—we will tell the stories of individuals and groups that are already carrying out the hard yet promising work of pioneering these strategies—including our own stories. A single dominating narrative can rob people of their dignity. For far too long we have been comfortable with dominant narratives of who workers are and what they want. These imposed narratives often fail to reflect the breadth of diversity of our workforce and the complexity of our lives. As a result, we develop strategies that perpetuate or minimize exclusions, and we widen the gap between people’s lived experiences and the solutions we promote. By bringing forward a diversity of voices and experiences in this book, we hope we will broaden perspectives and start the story of building worker power in a different place. Every story is powerful and provides us with great insight into pathways forward. These stories remind us of the importance of organizing people as their whole selves and the critical importance of building lasting power through collective action and institutions. They each give us a glimpse of what is possible when people can achieve agency, dignity, and joy in their lives.