Yesterday—April 24th—was a red-letter day in the annals of worker mobilization in post-collective-bargaining America. In Chicago, hundreds of fast-food and retail employees who work in the Loop and along the Magnificent Mile called a one-day strike and demonstrated for a raise to $15-an-hour and the right to form a union. At more than 150 Wal-Mart stores across the nation, workers and community activists called on the chain to regularize employees’ work schedules. And under pressure from an AFL-CIO-backed campaign of working-class voters who primarily aren’t union members, the county supervisors of New Mexico’s Bernalillo County voted to raise the local minimum wage.
The Chicago demonstration, which began in the dawn’s early light of 5:30 a.m., included workers at McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Subway, as well as Macy’s, Sears, and Victoria’s Secret, all of whom make the state minimum wage ($8.25) or just slightly more. Roughly one-third of the jobs in Chicago are low-wage, and more than half of the city’s low-wage workers are older than 30. The demonstration was organized by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, which formed to demand a living wage for the city’s retail and fast-food workers.
The “Workers Organizing Committee” is a name with a pedigree. Shortly after the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935 and a number of unions broke away from the AFL to organize the factory workers whom the AFL had refused to organize, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) formed to build union support among employees of U.S. Steel, Bethlehem Steel, and the other major companies in the industry. Following the wave of sit-down strikes in auto factories that led to the recognition of the United Auto Workers, the major steel companies signed a contract with the SWOC. The committee later changed its name to the more familiar United Steelworkers.
Just as the steel workers piggy-backed on the auto workers, so Chicago’s low-wage workers are following a course laid out by their counterparts in New York, where hundreds of fast-food workers also staged a one-day strike earlier this month.
Though the Service Employees International Union aided in the New York and Chicago efforts, this is anything but a conventional union-organizing campaign. With collective bargaining in the private sector all but a dead letter—just 6.6 percent of private-sector employees are union members, and the legal obstacles to organizing new members grow steadily steeper—SEIU is one of several major unions shifting their focus to actions that publicize the economic and social costs of ever-growing low-wage employment.
With the backing of the United Food and Commercial Workers, thousands of Wal-Mart employees have formed an association—not a union seeking a contract—that works alongside community activists to pressure the company to make changes such as regularizing workers’ hours. The AFL-CIO is expanding its Working America program, which has successfully mobilized non-union working-class voters to back progressive candidates at election time, to all 50 states. The union is expanding the program’s reach beyond the ballot box too, experimenting with projects that would activate Working America members in workplace-related causes and wage-related legislation. Working America has 112,000 members in New Mexico, recruited, as is Working America’s custom, through a door-to-door canvass. It has lobbied successfully for minimum-wage hikes in both Albuquerque and Bernalillo County.
None of these undertakings, at least for now, would result in collective bargaining agreements—the deficient state of workers’ rights under current law make that a bridge too far. But, there are ways these efforts could yield improvements in pay and working conditions nonetheless.
Cities can enact living-wage ordinances for workers in particular industries or in particular locations, as some Los Angeles-area cities have for workers in the hotel industry. States can raise their minimum-wage levels. And while such reforms might prompt, say, a low-wage manufacturer to move to a lower-wage region, they’re not likely to prompt relocations of businesses in the service, retail, or food sectors. Such campaigns have a more immediate benefit too: They organize workers who would likely have no prospect for on-the-job improvements if unions confined their interests to traditional union organizing. At a time when nearly 19 in 20 private-sector workers don’t belong to union, these drives also have the potential to reconnect the nation’s battered labor movement to a multitude of workers they won’t plausibly claim as members for many years, if ever. That’s not easy for unions: They’re committing to spending their members’ dues on campaigns that won’t produce more dues-paying members, at least, not for quite a while. But since the number of conventional organizing campaigns yielding more dues-paying members continues to shrink— and the hurdles to traditional organizing continue to grow—some unions are moving toward a more generalized working-class organizing, completely outside the framework of the National Labor Relations Act. What happened in Chicago, in New Mexico, and at Wal-Marts around the country today looks more like what unions did before the NLRA was enacted, when proto-unions called themselves “organizing committees,” when no one knew what the future of labor relations looked like but when many believed that labor relations in their current state would never produce a just and prosperous economy.
Harold Meyerson is the editor-at-large at The American Prospect,where this post originally appeared, and a columnist for The Washington Post. He is a vice chair of Democratic Socialists of America.