In a recent Atlantic article, Alana Semuels asks: “Why have high-profile organizing campaigns succeeded for white-collar workers and failed for blue-collar workers?” Semuels presents new BLS data that demonstrates the growth of white-collar unions: Union membership in professional and technical jobs grew by nearly 90,000 last year, and several white-collar occupations saw an uptick in union density, which grew from 4 percent in 2010 to 7 percent in 2017. Contrasting this with recent defeats of blue-collar unionization drives, Semuels argues that there is a growing “class divide” within organized labor. This, she argues,
is yet another dynamic of an increasingly bifurcated American economy. As jobs for educated workers continue to proliferate in this economy, educated workers feel secure, sure that they’ll be able to find more work if they lose their jobs. In some cases, that security may mean they feel they can advocate for a union, or stand up to employer threats to shut the workplace down if a union forms.
But this is where Semuels’s argument reveals its flaw: White-collar workers aren’t organizing because they feel secure, but because they have more in common with precarious blue-collar workers than ever.
Consider recent changes in the media economy: rampant layoffs that show no sign of abetting anytime soon, and with them, the rise of forced perma-lancing. Today, internet publishers are adding workers at twice the rate that newspaper publishers are losing them, and while many of the latter have long been unionized, the former is a Wild West with few established workplace standards. This is the proletarianization of white-collar labor. And like the proletarians of generations past, these workers are turning to unions to protect what little they already have, and demand better treatment.
Another argument, suggested by Semuels and others, attributes the growth of white-collar unionization to a sort of superficial generational politics. Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center, says that college-educated millennials expected the world “handed to them on a silver platter” if they played by the rules and now find themselves disappointed. It’s true that millennials have a more favorable view of unions now than they did in 2010. As the Economic Policy Institute reports, 76 percent of the increase in union membership in 2017 was workers under 35 years old, even though this group accounts for less than 40 percent of total employment. But this attitude reflects their work experience, not their entitlement. Millennials earn 20 percent less than boomers did at the same age. Far more of these individuals work in “pink-collar” sectors—education and health care, sectors that have doubled in size since 1990 and which contain the country’s most militant unions—than in the niche digital-media sector that often draws attention. In truth, this is a story about how the erosion of working conditions is leading student debt-saddled employees to identify with the working rather than the managerial class.
Most of these campaigns have taken place in the South, where, as Semuels notes, “anti-union attitudes are most persistent.” These attitudes are not inherent to the region, but rather a product of the failure of the labor movement to organize the South, a historical fact rooted in the divisions between white and black workers in the region. These workers were pitted against one another, with the latter used as scab labor to break the former’s all-white unions. That division, and unions’ failure to address and overcome racism, has now been codified by right-to-work laws. These laws go unmentioned in Semuels’s article, but they’re central to the divergent outcomes she’s analyzing. Right-to-work laws deprive unions of a critical source of funding by prohibiting mandatory dues collection, which makes it that much more difficult to pursue, much less win, organizing campaigns. The Illinois Economic Policy Institute finds that right-to-work laws in the midwest reduce the unionization rate by 2.1 percentage points on average, and lower real hourly wages by 2.6 percent on average. Considering that these laws may go national any day now, this is a reality with which every union must grapple, and every story about organizing must consider.
White-collar unionization has an important role to play in helping labor to expand under these difficult conditions. Newly unionized white-collar workers provide dues to increasingly cash-strapped unions, whose funding is under greater attack than ever thanks to the Trump administration. And unionization raises wages sector-wide, both for union and non-union workers. Further, unions in the media sector are capable of drawing a disproportionate amount of attention to the virtues of organizing. Journalists love talking about themselves, and when an outlet unionizes, it’s a national story. The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) effort affected only 115 workers, and yet, it’s the reason for the Atlantic article.
There is, nonetheless, an important conversation to be had about the growth of white-collar unions amid the failure of unionization campaigns in what labor experts call “strategic sectors”—meaning, sectors where workers have immense power to cripple the economy should they strike. Foremost among these are logistics industries like transportation, communication, and warehousing, in which the number of workers has decreased thanks to automation, but those who remain are more powerful than ever. According to labor historian Kim Moody, the “just-in-time supply systems that tie together the production of most goods and services today makes the entire system more vulnerable to worker action.” As Beverly Silver, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, explains, “Workers’ power at the point of production is undoubtedly, on balance, increasing.” With workplace bargaining power rooted in workers’ ability to halt production processes, these industries are the sites most critical to reversing labor’s decline. It’s important that unions organizing in media—the News Guild and WGA—pay attention to these sectors, and stand in solidarity with workers who organize in them.
After all, sectors of the labor movement do not operate in a zero-sum world. Organizing media workers rarely takes the place of organizing other groups of workers. Semuels’s emphasis on the divide between blue- and white-collar workers, without examining the important connections between them, produces a narrative that discourages white-collar workers from organizing unions. Wracked with guilt over their relative privilege, these workers discount their best route to strengthening other workers’ power. In fact, framing some workers’ efforts to organize as antagonistic to other workers may sound familiar to those who have organized a union: it’s the language of the boss.