The recent failure to unionise workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama is merely the latest chapter in the long decline of traditional working-class organisations. Has the pandemic made things even worse?
Since 1985, trade union membership has fallen by one-half, on average, across OECD countries. Business interests have run persistent, well-funded campaigns against unions and captured much of the media and think-tank circuit. All told, these efforts have clearly succeeded in curtailing workers’ traditional rights and scope of representation. While employer-friendly “right to work” legislation has undermined unions’ ability to fund themselves, the widespread use of “contract labour” (like in India) has created a sprawling class of workers without job security or benefits, many of whom are deployed alongside permanent employees.
Global competition, automation, and market concentration are all weakening labour’s bargaining power. But labour’s collective strength has also been undercut by internal fragmentation. There is a sharp division between manufacturing production and transportation, on one hand, and service, retail, and caregiving, on the other.
Although service workers in the United States and Canada have been organised by the Service Employees International Union, and in Europe by UNI Europa (the European Services Workers Union), we know from the pandemic that workers in healthcare, delivery, and other sectors remain badly underpaid and unprotected.
In developing countries, the fragmentation of labour runs even deeper, owing to the gulf between the formal and informal sectors. In countries like India, Kenya, and Peru, the overwhelming majority of workers are engaged in informal activities, without any benefits or social protection. As these workers are often self-employed, labour organisations are rarely sensitive to their need for credit and marketing facilities, health and childcare, or legal and insurance services. (There are exceptions, such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association, the largest informal workers’ organisation in India.)
With the rise of the gig economy, more workers in rich countries also find themselves without social protection and very little help for their particular needs. Unions in Germany are trying to expand the availability of worker-friendly customer-review sites, because gig workers depend heavily on online ratings to secure work. In the US, some small companies are entering the market to provide gig workers with affordable insurance or sick leave. Germany’s IG Metall, Europe’s largest industrial union, is opening itself to self-employed workers; and the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain also is increasingly trying to reach out to gig workers.
Intra-labour fragmentation also stems from how unions organise. In the US and India, unionisation is so decentralised that corporate employers can easily block or weaken nascent organising efforts. Since their defeat, the union organisers in Bessemer have recognised that they need to move their organising efforts to the industry level – as happens in Europe, where individual firms have less incentive or leverage to curb unions – and also mobilise Amazon customers against the company’s labour practices. In the recent unionisation effort, the primary demand was less about wages and more about the company’s use of robots and monitoring algorithms to set a relentless work pace.
In several countries, the hardships of the pandemic seem to have triggered a surge in some forms of labour organising. Given the relatively high average age of members in old-style unions, organisers are trying to update their methods, such as by using social media and labour networks to get the “millennial” generation on board with online petitions and messages geared toward concerns not associated with a physical work site. Even higher-skilled and better-paid young workers are growing concerned about labour insecurity.
Fortunately, more shareholders nowadays seem open to the idea that negotiating job stability, welfare, and training programmes with labour may be good for long-run productivity and profits – a departure from the longstanding view of labour as just another cost to be minimised for the sake of quarterly profits and year-end executive bonuses. Through some level of co-management, in which all parties have an interest in articulating and working towards mutually beneficial long-term goals, trade unions can assume more responsibility for the overall trajectory of firms and industries.
– Project Syndicate
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