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As a labor lawyer, I hate it when people pat me on the head and say, “Do you think the labor movement will ever come back?” As if it’s my problem and not theirs. Or as if it’s something that “the unions” or “organized labor” have to do—not, as I think, an obligation that we all have as citizens.
I can give the usual, often hackneyed reasons for bringing back a labor movement. For starters, we need to raise wages—a lot—or there will be no middle class. From 2000 to 2012, the pay of the bottom 70 percent of Americans was flat or falling, even as non-farm productivity rose 30 percent. If we choose a longer time frame, it’s even worse: since 1979, pay for most workers has barely budged—but productivity has risen 75 percent. It is impossible to keep up aggregate demand without pay raises, unless middle-class people go recklessly into debt. We did that in the lead-up to the financial crisis of 2008, and without a labor movement, we will do something similarly disastrous again.
A labor movement will also help us recover our sense of citizenship by giving us more control over our lives. I used to complain that people no longer had unions. Now many of us no longer have employers, either. Even college grads with science degrees and high skills have to work as temps. We can’t carry the bad habits that we acquire in the workplace—disengagement, learned helplessness, unquestioned obedience—into a democratic society and then expect that society to work.
Is it even possible to bring back some kind of labor movement? Yes, it is—but we have to do three difficult things all at once:
First, we have to change our labor model. Here is a very difficult point to get across in this country: our labor model, based on “exclusive representation,” is just plain weird. In the United States, either the union represents every single person in a plant or shop, with mandatory collection of dues, or it represents no one. For the most part, that’s not the way it works in other parts of the world. In Belgium and Germany and just about everywhere else, the union represents the militant minority, the true believers, the men and women who really want to join. Since our model clearly isn’t working, why not try things the way they do in countries that still have unions?