A 21st century labor movement

Across the country, our economy is failing most households today.

The vast majority of new jobs are in low-paying sectors. And too often working people aren’t receiving the wages, benefits, and reliable hours they need to be able to sustain a decent life.

In struggling communities where middle-class security once almost felt within reach, a deepening crisis over unpaid bills, mounting debt, and lost chances has now settled.

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These can be unsettling, infuriating places: tangible relief from the worst recession in decades still has yet to arrive, with more and more families living on the brink, tired of waiting in vain.

Against this bleak backdrop, it shouldn’t be hard to see that strong union contracts are as important as ever for the American workforce to win. But, on this Labor Day, the predictable tributes to past union victories won’t suffice. Neither will the knee-jerk eulogies for a labor movement that the media and many politicians have long declared dead, a vanished relic.

It’s time, instead, to look ahead, and focus on what can be done differently and better in the future. New playbooks for organizing must be written and new methods of collective bargaining must be developed and implemented to keep pace with rapidly changing industries.

Fortunately, this is already happening. Recent examples from the union I’m proud to lead:

Millenials are fighting back against unfair treatment of their co-workers at large retailers like Zara, and building online support that translates into actual power on the shop floor. Immigrant rights advocates and community groups are joining interfaith clergy to rally for dignity and justice for undocumented carwash workers. From Chicago to Las Vegas, Guitar Center employees are activating musicians on Twitter for support as they seek to improve the quality of their jobs. Poultry plant employees are convincing each other that a union voice will give them more control over their work lives, and focusing on new ways to build strength together.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach here as the diversity of organizing must reflect the diversity of contemporary workplaces and jobs, and the different settings in which workers interact.

But one thing is clear - active, fearless experimentation with new tools and tactics, unexpected alliances and coalitions, will help bring the labor movement into the twenty-first century.

There is no other way forward. We cannot pretend this is the 1930s or the 1980s, or some other decade, for that matter, and impose old ideas onto fresh challenges, especially as workers face forms of wage theft, erratic scheduling, and disrespect tailored to our digital age.

Millenials, immigrants, women, and people of color: increasingly, these growing demographic groups across low-wage industries and occupations, where many unions can have a positive economic impact, are also crucial constituencies and voting blocs of the Democratic electorate.

So, it’s essential for the Congressional Democrats and for the Democratic Party nationally to remember that they must be champions of the most vulnerable working men and women, and advance a progressive agenda that addresses their most urgent needs and demands on the job.

Heading into the fall mid-term elections, Democrats should campaign not only on specific pro-worker policies like a higher minimum wage, but also on a vision of a fairer economy and broadly shared prosperity in which the revitalized role of unions is highlighted and defended.


Stuart Appelbaum is President of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), UFCW, and a member of the DNC Executive Committee from the Eastern Region.

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