Foretelling Labor’s Future in the Cloudy Crystal Ball

Ideas and Issues

Pearl River     Roughly 39 million Americans have applied for unemployment, not even counting gig and self-employed workers, workers who have abandoned job search, or couldn’t access the benefits, which means real unemployment is over 50 million.  Statistical unemployment will be 17 or 18% but clearly, we’re at Great Depression levels of over 20%, and likely higher.  No one argues that the current situation in the United States is not at levels that have not been reached since then, and many are arguing that we are on course to exceed those levels.

Talking to Joe McCartin, professor of history at Georgetown University and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor on Wade’s World and likely the preeminent labor scholar currently, I asked him to look into his crystal ball and give us a sense of what this situation might mean for workers and labor organizations.  In so many words, Joe’s response, was in effect, “cloudy with a chance of scattered thunderstorms.”  He underlined the fact that he was a historian not a fortuneteller, so we ended up spending more time fingering our worry beads than conjuring sugarplum visions of the future.

Joe pointed out that the speed of the job loss in this depression was historically unique.  90 years ago, the job loss was a slower moving storm, while this cataclysmic drop was lightening fast over less than ten weeks.  We are charting unknown territory.  The surge of union organizing success then had largely been as employment improved and then solidified under labor codes for workers’ wages and bargaining rights in the war years.

We bemoaned the fact that service workers had been particularly hit in this depression and shared the fear that public employees would see large job losses as well, just as we saw after the Great Recession in 2008.  Unions in the public and service sector from teachers to casino workers to janitors have been the leading organizing unions over recent decades, and we worried that they may not be in shape to help lead a resurgence.

Trying not to be totally Debbie-downers, we speculated that the status of gig workers as workers, rather than independent contractors, was likely to become a more permanent situation.  We were wistful about whether they had the potential for new organization, saying so, without necessarily really believing it.  We took a couple of whacks at the devastation being wrought by private equity in housing and health care with more conviction.

Professor McCartin has more recently been linked to the notion of something called “bargaining for the common good.”  Joe explained this as linking unions and communities together and expanding collective bargaining demands past the workplace into areas like housing, and obviously health in the time of the pandemic.  This isn’t exactly a new concept, far from it, but always worth promoting.  Unfortunately, as Joe and I expressed our fears about the current situation and the likely horror it is bringing to workers and low-and-moderate income families, any notion of significant advances in collective bargaining with diminished union strength, seemed hollow.

Talking about the common good during times of virtual full-employment is one thing, but right now when we haven’t hit bottom yet, given the callous inequity of the governmental response, for many it may take a while to go from everyone for themselves to realizing our only hope is through collective action.