full

The Past, Present, and Future of Organized Labor in America

High-profile unionization drives at companies like Amazon, Apple, and Starbucks have focused attention on organized labor in the US in a way unseen in half a century. The attention isn’t without merit: there were more successful union elections in 2022 than in any year since 2005, and public approval for organized labor is the highest it's been in over 50 years. 

Yet despite these signs of a growing labor movement, the percentage of Americans belonging to unions is still substantially smaller than it was during the peak of organized labor participation in the 20th century. 

So how should one think about the state of organized labor today? On the eve of Labor Day weekend, maybe it’s also worth revisiting why we should care about the state of organized labor in the first place. 

On this episode of Trending Globally, you’ll hear from Andrew Schrank, professor of sociology and international and public affairs at Watson and an expert on organized labor, about the past, present, and future of the labor movement in America. Because, as he explains, it’s more than just workers’ wages on the line: our country's prosperity and stability might depend on giving workers a greater voice in the future of our economy.  

Read Andrew Schrank’s 2019 article ‘Rebuilding Labor Power in the Postindustrial United States

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts

Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is "Trending Globally". I'm Dan Richards. Over the last few years, you've probably seen the headlines, or heard the news.

REPORTER 1: Starbucks workers in upstate New York--

REPORTER 2: Workers at an Apple Store in Atlanta--

REPORTER 3: Voting is underway, and as Amazon workers decide whether to form a union--

[MUSIC PLAYING]

REPORTER 4: The nation now has nearly 100,000 workers protesting what they consider to be unfair wages.

REPORTER 5: It also goes to show the rising power of labor and workers in the American workforce.

REPORTER 2: They're part of a growing trend.

DAN RICHARDS: And the hype isn't without merit. There were more successful union elections this year than in any year since the early two-thousands. And according to a recent Gallup survey, public approval for organized labor is the highest it's been in over 50 years. Despite all this, the percentage of Americans belonging to unions is still small compared to what it once was.

So is this the beginning of a new golden age of unions in America? Or an anomalous few years brought about by a global pandemic, and historically low unemployment? To help make sense of all this, I talked with Andrew Schrank, a professor of sociology and international and public affairs at Watson. And an expert on organized labor's evolution over the 20th century.

Andrew thinks working people deserve more of a say over their working conditions, though that might not mean a return to nineteen-fifties-style organized labor. That's because 20th-century institutions might not solve the problems that workers face today. And according to Andrew, it's more than just workers' wages on the line. Our entire country's prosperity and stability might depend on giving workers a greater voice in the future of our economy.

ANDREW SCHRANK: One way or the other, something's got to give. You just can't sustain these levels of inequality without seeing some sort of upsurge.

DAN RICHARDS: On this episode, a look with Andrew Schrank into the past, present, and future, of organized labor in America.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I started by asking Andrew, what exactly accounts for this growth in high profile unionization efforts of the last few years? Here's what he had to say.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ANDREW SCHRANK: I think to get an upsurge like this, you need at least three things. You need a motive, what sometimes we talk about as a grievance, on the part of workers, you need an opportunity for them to mobilize and take advantage of the moment to bring their power to bear, and they need resources with which they can do these things. And if you think about these three things, a grievance or a motive, an opportunity structure, and resources, I do think that all three are present at the moment.

I think the motive is pretty straightforward. Real wages for most US workers have more or less flatlined since the nineteen-seventies, particularly at the low end of the labor market, the non-college educated workers, what traditionally we've called low-skilled workers. They have terrible working conditions in many cases, in terms of their hours, in terms of safety and health, in terms of basic dignity, and the way that they're treated by their employers. And then in the past year, real wages, inflation-adjusted wages have actually declined, not just flatlined.

So we're talking about tens of millions of workers who can't expect to live as well as their parents, even when their parents didn't live that well, and they're looking at Jeff Bezos or Howard Schultz living in virtual castles, flying around in private planes, and Bezos' case, in rocket ships. So I think the grievance is pretty clear. But if a grievance was enough to create this kind of upsurge, you'd see upsurges like this all the time. You would have seen them over many, many years, we didn't.

And that's where I think the opportunity comes in, what allows workers to mobilize that grievance, and do something about it? And here too. You can look at a rapid decline in the unemployment rate that leaves workers less worried about standing up to their bosses, less worried about retaliation, and maybe losing a job. And so you're not willing to take it anymore in the way you might have been willing to take it back when you had a looser labor market, and less opportunity to get a job, if things went sideways.

As I said, you also need resources. We've seen some of that coming in from the traditional labor movement, Starbucks Workers United, with the union organizing at Starbucks has actually received a lot of money from the traditional labor movement. You also need human resources.

DAN RICHARDS: Something which according to Andrew, might also be present in these newer movements.

ANDREW SCHRANK: Increasingly, if you've got educated, and say, in some cases, college-educated workers, well-educated workers, in low-paid, poorly-treated jobs, they're going to have the skill, and the self-confidence to stand up to their employers in a way that maybe less educated workers at various points in time haven't had.

DAN RICHARDS: And this is actually not as new a phenomenon as it might sound.

ANDREW SCHRANK: I'll give you an example from the nineteen-thirties. One of the best studies of the labor leaders of the nineteen-thirties is a classic account by a sociologist named C. Wright Mills, called "New Men Of Power." One Of the things Mills demonstrates, is that the leaders of the New Deal labor movement had dramatically higher levels of education than their fellow workers, than their fellow Americans, on average. I don't know this, but I suspect if you were go to Starbucks, if you were to go to some of these establishments that are seeing organizing campaigns, you would find out that many of the leaders of these organizing campaigns were, as I said, well-educated workers in poorly-paid jobs, maybe saddled with college debt, and with the self-confidence, and the skill to do something about it.

DAN RICHARDS: So we've got these three things present in these current high-profile union drives. Motivation or grievance, opportunity, and resources. Do you imagine that more workers, or groups of workers might find themselves with these three circumstances in the future? In other words, do you think this is the beginning of a broader movement for organized labor in the US?

ANDREW SCHRANK: Well, I feel like a lot of the media attention to this has been a little bit premature, a little bit exaggerated. I mean, the Starbucks campaigns at this point, involve, as far as I can tell, about 3% of the Starbucks labor force. So that's not an enormous percentage. And we're talking about Starbucks, and Amazon, Apple, a few companies. But we're not talking about the nineteen-thirties yet. Could it become something like that? I think it could become something like that. But I don't think we're there yet.

DAN RICHARDS: It's interesting you bring up the nineteen-thirties. Because I think when many Americans think of unions, they think of that sort of earlier era. And this actually gets to one of the big questions I wanted to explore with you, which is, if the labor movement in America were truly to have a resurgence, how might it look like those earlier movements? And also, how might it look different? What lessons from the past can workers really learn from today?

ANDREW SCHRANK: Yeah, that's a very good question, Dan. And I think we can exaggerate the similarities. And I worry a little bit that insofar as we do exaggerate those similarities, we'll draw the wrong lessons.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

DAN RICHARDS: In order to not do that, let's take a little step back. And go through some of this early history of labor organizing.

ANDREW SCHRANK: In the nineteen-thirties, when you saw an upsurge in organizing, in particular, by industrial unions, they brought their power to bear in Washington to effectuate labor law reform. And with the Roosevelt administration in the New Deal era, the unions were able to bring their pressure to bear, to encourage the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, the NLRA, also known as the Wagner Act. And that was the law that regulated and oversaw collective bargaining. It still does in the United States.

DAN RICHARDS: This all kicked off a sort of feedback loop that benefited organized labor.

ANDREW SCHRANK: When workers gained power on the shop floor, the shop floor could be a classroom, if you're a teacher. It could be a construction site, it can be anything. But when you gain power on the shop floor, you at least potentially gain power in Washington as well. You can organize workers at the point of production, but they can also be turned out to vote. Or their dues can be used in some cases to support mobilizing campaigns or political campaigns, and so on and so forth.

They could then push for new laws that would strengthen unions, or make it even easier to create them. And then if that law actually is enforced they should be able to organize a higher and higher percentage of the labor force that would then increase their power further, which is why, or at least part of the reason why, by the end of the Second World War you had close to a third of the non-farm labor force in unions. By the early nineteen-fifties, it is about a third of the non-farm labor force. And that is a powerful force, not only in organizing contracts in factories, in workplaces, but also in bringing pressure to bear on politicians in Washington.

DAN RICHARDS: And so--

[LAUGHS]

I guess what happened? So how do you go from a third of the non-farm labor force organized to less than 10%?

ANDREW SCHRANK: Exactly. A lot of the answers to this, the ones that you commonly hear invoked, have to do with automation, and globalization, and deindustrialization, and all of that is true. I mean, to give an example, I grew up in upstate New York. And near where I grew up, General Electric had a lot of plants, in particular in Schenectady, New York. At the end of the war, they employed about 45,000 workers. Even when I was a kid in the early nineteen-eighties, they employed close to 25,000 workers in that plant.

General Electric in Schenectady now employs less than 1,000 unionized workers. Partly they replaced these blue collar workers with machines, automation. Partly they sent the highly-paid, high-skilled unionized jobs offshore, looking for cheaper labor, and that's where globalization kicks in. Partly, globalization kicks in through trade, and the fact that the US is no longer the only industrial power in the world. Increasingly, you can buy manufactured goods from Japan, from Germany, from China, from lots of other countries.

And so all of these forces converge to undercut the heart of the New Deal labor movement in factories and mass production industries. But I think part of the story that we often forget is that even before that deindustrialization had really set in, there had been a business pushback against New Deal labor law.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

DAN RICHARDS: One of the first moves in this pushback, was the Taft-Hartley Act, which was passed in Nineteen Forty-Seven just after World War II, and amended the National Labor Relations Act. The Taft-Hartley Amendments started reining in the power of organized labor, well before things like globalization and automation had really started to change the American economy.

ANDREW SCHRANK: The Taft-Hartley Amendments outlaw a lot of the strategies and tactics that the New Deal labor movement had used to grow and consolidate its power in the first place. Probably most importantly, it banned what's called the closed shop, the idea that you can negotiate a contract that says, you can only work in this establishment if you are a member of the union. That was a very powerful tool that labor could use prior to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Amendments in Nineteen Forty-Seven.

DAN RICHARDS: This all, you could say, started a feedback loop in the other direction against organized labor, the one that favored employers.

ANDREW SCHRANK: When the Taft-Hartley Amendments passed, an entire industry of union busting grows up, employer side law firms, and consulting firms, that help management take advantage of Taft-Hartley, and various other legislation to try to undermine organizing campaigns. And organized labor has been on the defensive ever since, and you start seeing the decline of union density.

DAN RICHARDS: A decline that has persisted, basically until the present.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

But to stop that decline, workers can't simply undo the laws and institutions that weaken them, and rebuild the unions of yesteryear. According to Andrew, while there is much to learn from the past, the solutions of that era can't alone solve the problems of this one. Here's what he means. Think about the system of organized labor that sprung out of the New Deal.

ANDREW SCHRANK: That system was a great system for that economy. A mass production economy in which a large share of the labor force was employed in very large establishments, 10,000, 20,000, 40,000 workers. But in an economy in which establishment size has shrunk, and those sorts of large scale mass production industries really are no more, it just isn't going to work.

DAN RICHARDS: Why not? In many ways, it really comes down to what makes a lot of our modern economy work, the ability to scale. An example.

ANDREW SCHRANK: In order to get a collective bargaining agreement--

DAN RICHARDS: In other words, start a formal union.

ANDREW SCHRANK: --first, you need to get 30% of the workers in an establishment to sign a card saying that they would like to have an election, in which they will vote on whether they will unionize or not. That involves not just organization, many cases involve lawyers determining who's eligible to sign a card in the first place. If 30% signed cards, the National Labor Relations Board, which is the enforcement body under the National Labor Relations Act, will conduct an election. They have the same process in the election. You have to bring in organizers, or organize from the ground up, which is time-consuming, and costly, and the union will win if it gets 50 plus 1% of the votes.

DAN RICHARDS: But that's not the end of the process. Oh, no.

ANDREW SCHRANK: Then it's time to negotiate a contract. There you need lawyers. There you need organizers. And then if you win the contract, you have to enforce the contract. These contracts don't enforce themselves. So when workers feel their rights are being violated under the contract, they have to file a grievance. There might be arbitration involved. All of this requires a lot of money, a lot of human capital, a lot of human effort.

Now, think about it. If you're putting those resources into these campaigns, and the payoff is you've got 40,000 workers at a GE plant organized, the payoff is worth it. It's worth putting the time in. It's worth putting the energy in. Now, think about trying to organize 9,000 different Starbucks outlets, where each one by my back of the envelope calculation, has about 35 employees. The workers, and their unions, or their activists, are not going to have the time, the energy, the money to do all of this.

Even if they did, the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees these campaigns, these elections, these contracts, is already incredibly backlogged. It doesn't have the staff, it doesn't have the personnel to deal with its current cases. How are they going to take on all of these cases at Starbucks, at Chipotle, at Amazon, the Apple Store, et cetera-- et cetera-- et cetera-- It's not really a viable system in the current more decentralized economy.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

DAN RICHARDS: Here's maybe a dumb question, although I know there's no dumb questions.

ANDREW SCHRANK: There are no dumb questions.

[LAUGHING]

DAN RICHARDS: Why can't all these Starbucks branches that want to form unions work as one big union with multiple locations?

ANDREW SCHRANK: It's conceivable. And there are legal battles about whether this is possible or not. Starbucks does not want this, because if it's allowed, and if the National Labor Relations Board and/or the courts rule that they're all part of the same bargaining unit, Starbucks is going to fight this tooth and claw. And they're going to have a lot of resources to fight it. And the workers are not going to have a lot of resources to push back.

DAN RICHARDS: So in that case, we've looked at these ways now that labor today simply just-- the nature of the work involved, the organization of industry, it just doesn't map on to the way that organized labor was developed a century ago, or in the thirties and forties? Are there alternatives for giving workers more voice, whether it's about their wages, or their working conditions?

ANDREW SCHRANK: I do think that there are things workers can do. I think these campaigns that are underway now at places like Starbucks, Apple, Amazon, are extraordinarily valuable. Even if they don't lead to the sorts of unions you had in the thirties, even if they don't lead to the sorts of unions that the organizers on the ground are anticipating right now, the mere existence of disruption, the mere existence of workers exercising their voice and pursuing justice at the workplace, is not only valuable in its own right, as simply a moral concern, for those of us who do agree with the UN Declaration of Human Rights that worker voice is a fundamental right.

But it also puts employers on notice, puts legislators on notice, that if they don't do something, the situation could spin out of hand. That discontented workers are a threat. They're a threat to profits. They're a threat to productivity. And that's where you get reform. And so while I'm not at all convinced that the upsurge we're seeing today is going to lead to something like the thirties, or a revitalization of those industrial relations and labor market institutions, and I'm not at all convinced that will lead to outcomes that are predictable by their own leaders, I think that if they continue will lead to some sort of change that could prove beneficial for workers.

DAN RICHARDS: Are there any signs you see that can point to maybe what types of reforms could come, or are there any examples of institutions, organizations, movements, that are not like traditional labor unions, that are still providing workers a new type of meaningful voice?

ANDREW SCHRANK: It's a great question, Dan. So let me give you a couple of examples. One outside the confines of the mainstream labor movement, and one that's innovative but within the confines of the existing labor movement. I have worked over the years with an immigrant rights group in New Mexico called Somos Un Pueblo Unido. And this is a community-based organization that helps immigrants and workers pursue their rights in an array of different places, the workplace, but also the schools, the broader community, et cetera.

But a lot of their cases are workplace-related. And what they found was that workers would come to them with concerns about their employment situation, how they were treated on the job. In many cases, they suffered wage theft, where the employer was underpaying them, or situations of harassment, and things like that, safety concerns. And they found that when they took those complaints to the obvious institutions, the State Department of Labor for wage and hour concerns, or the EEOC for discrimination concerns or things like that, even if things went well and they won, so to speak, they would be winning a victory for an individual worker. And the payoff wasn't very high, it gets back to my example of the difference between organizing 20,000 workers in an auto plant, versus organizing 35 workers in a Starbucks, now we're talking one worker.

But what they realized, was that in many cases, most cases, the worker who was being harassed on the job or underpaid, was only one of many. That there were other workers they were working with who were suffering the same abuses, but weren't coming to Somos looking for support. And it turns out that Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act includes language that protects all workers who are engaged in, quote, "concerted activity" whether they're a member of a union or not. Most people don't know about this. They don't think about this.

And so Somos figured this out, and when workers come to them now, they will say, are there others at the hotel you work, at the restaurant you work, at the establishment you work at, going through similar types of abuse? The workers almost invariably say yes, it's rarely an individual thing. They say, bring a group to us. Bring as many as you can to us, because now we can take the case, not just to the State Labor Board, not just to OSHA, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, we can bring it to the National Labor Relations Board.

And while the National Labor Relations Board, as I said, is backlogged, it is much more sympathetic to workers than most other agencies. And if you win there, you're not just winning the case for one worker, you're winning the case for a number of workers. So the payoff is much higher.

I have worked with a colleague, Jessica Garrick, at the University of Denvir. And she has shown in her research that Somos is not the only organization using the strategy. A lot of organizations around the country, immigrant rights groups, worker centers, community-based organizations that are out to defend labor have used similar strategies to bring cases that are not traditionally thought of as collective bargaining cases, National Labor Relations Board type cases, to the NLRB knowing that it's a more sympathetic audience, and the payoff is higher.

DAN RICHARDS: Even within traditional labor unions, there are innovations that address how to organize labor in our less concentrated, post-industrial economy.

ANDREW SCHRANK: I'll give another example. A couple of friends and colleagues who work with 32BJ, a mass local of the service employees Union in New York, and surrounding area, Rob Hill and Stuart Amer, have studied and written about a strategy that 32BJ has used, where when they organize workers, their workforce tends to consist of things like custodial workers, food service workers, airport workers, et cetera, they will in the organizing campaign, commit with employers that they will not negotiate a contract until the majority of workers in that labor market have also agreed to unionize, what Stuart Eimer and Rob Hill call the trigger mechanism.

And the trigger mechanism essentially says to these employers, that if you agree to recognize the union, the union will not actually make demands on you, costly demands on you, until at least half of the workers in your labor market have also signed on to campaigns like this and wages are effectively taken out of competition.

DAN RICHARDS: And what's the benefit of this trigger mechanism?

ANDREW SCHRANK: Well, think about this. The concerns for employers are real. If I own a pizza parlor, and my workers unionize, and you own a pizza parlor down the block, and your workers don't unionize, all of the things being equal, my costs are going to go up, your costs are going to stay the same. And you're going to be able to outcompete me, potentially drive me out of business. I mean, for some employers, this is an existential threat. These are not imaginary concerns.

But if my workers were signing an agreement that says they will unionize, but they won't pursue wage increases, unless and until your workers unionize. And push for wage increases, I would be a lot less hostile to their campaign, because I would know that if and when my workers organized and wages went up, your workers would organize and wages would go up too. I might still be anti-union, but I might not be as dug in, as entrenched in my opposition to unions. And that's a kind of micro level example of what 32BJ has been doing in the Middle Atlantic states.

DAN RICHARDS: Anti-union, but not that anti-union. Doesn't sound like a huge victory for organized labor, but it makes a difference.

ANDREW SCHRANK: 32BJ in New York has seen its membership rise by tens of thousands of workers in the period in which they've been using the trigger mechanism as strategy, as unions elsewhere are being decimated. And what Aimer and Hill argue, and I think they're right, is that if other unions were to adopt a strategy like this, they too could see growth, could see empowerment, despite all of the disadvantages workers and unions are at in the current US labor market.

DAN RICHARDS: Something else you've written about that I thought was just a very interesting and elegant idea for some of these problems was what you call 911 for workers, or 911 for W. I was wondering if you could just describe that a little and how it speaks to what's not working in labor protections right now.

ANDREW SCHRANK: So let me begin with the diagnosis and then, sort of, tell you why I think something like 911 for W would be a partial solution. And the diagnosis gets back to what I talked about with the New Deal labor law. New Deal labor law was highly specialized. And by specialized, what I mean is that each different type of abuse was assigned to a different law and a different agency.

So the National Labor Relations Act governed collective bargaining. The Fair Labor Standards Act, also from the nineteen-thirties, governed wages and hours, and was overseen by its own agency, the Wages and Hours division of the Department of Labor. When safety and health legislation was passed later on, it was assigned to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and so on and so forth.

This highly specialized regulatory system made a certain amount of sense in the postwar period, where you had large factories, again, which could yield huge payoffs by a visit from OSHA. If OSHA came through, they weren't just governing the safety of 10 workers, they were governing the safety of 10,000 workers. If an organizing campaign happened, the National Labor Relations Board was covering 10,000 workers, not 10 workers. But these days, in the current post-industrial economy with smaller establishments costs a ton of money to the government and the taxpayer, confuses workers, and just doesn't work.

So what do I mean by 911 for W? Well, when you worry that the law has been broken at home, you've been robbed, or broken into, or God forbid, assaulted, or something like that, you call 911. We all know that, right? There's a single one-stop shop when you need the police. Workers don't have anything like that. If it's safety and health, they go to one place. If it's wages and hours, they go to-- there's a bulletin board in most workplaces with posters from all these agencies, and it just confuses workers.

And it's also a problem because the same employers who violate one of these laws tend to violate all of these laws. What are you going to do? You're working for some abusive meatpacking plant in Iowa and you're going to call five different agencies because your rights have been violated in five different ways--

DAN RICHARDS: Right, like one thing's not safe, I'm also working too many hours.

ANDREW SCHRANK: It would take your whole life to pursue all of these complaints, I mean, you just can't do it. But imagine if there was a hotline, I call it 911 for worker, 911 for W, because it seems like that would be a reasonably OK number to use and it would be memorable, but it could be anything.

But some sort of one-stop shop where you could call and there would be a dispatcher, and you could say, look, I was harassed on the job and I also haven't been paid overtime. And then there'd be some sort of algorithm through a database in which the government agencies would figure out, OK, this many complaints have come in about this employment site within the past x months or x years around these issues. You the worker would have a much more efficient system of dealing with your concerns, but the government would have centralized information that they don't currently have that would allow them to pinpoint the worst violators, the repeated violators, and do something about them because a vastly disproportionate share of the violations come from a relatively small number of employers.

DAN RICHARDS: Whether we're talking about newer innovations in terms of helping organize labor or a resurgence in more, sort of, classical unions, do you think any of the calculations change now that we're in this period that seems a little different economically than it was maybe a year or two ago when we first started seeing things about organizing at places like Amazon and Starbucks? Now we're in a moment where there's higher inflation, some experts are concerned we could see some greater economic slowdown coming soon. Is there any reason to think that the conditions have changed in a way that might put labor organizing further on the back foot? In other words, I guess, have we already hit some small peak of labor organizing, and now the conditions are no longer ripe for organizing, again?

ANDREW SCHRANK: Well, I think it's a great question. I don't want to make predictions. I mean, if I could read the future, I'd be making a lot more money in the stock market than I currently am. But I am concerned about inflation, but I am much more concerned about inflation from a political perspective than from an economic perspective. Now I might get back to the fact that I'm not an economist, I study politics.

But I think it's hard to blame rising wages and workplace empowerment for the current round of inflation, mostly because real wages have an increase. In fact, in the past year, real wages have declined for most workers. And so it's hard to really talk about a wage price spiral when real wages aren't increasing.

It's also hard to blame, say, the stimulus, which we've heard people blaming for inflation, when inflation is a global problem. If I wanted to think about inflation and where this is coming from. I wouldn't just look at the labor market, I would look at things like profit and the rise of monopoly and oligopoly and a period of massive deregulation of antitrust. And think about whether some of this is being driven by profiteering by large oligopolistic corporations. I would wonder how much of this is about supply chains that have been stretched incredibly thin in part by efforts to avoid worker power and avoid unionization by shipping the jobs offshore, in many cases, very, very far away such that the supply chains are so fragile that they break at a moment's notice.

DAN RICHARDS: And Andrew thinks some of these sources of inflation, like tenuous supply chains are growing disparities between company profits and worker pay, could actually be helped by a more robust labor movement.

ANDREW SCHRANK: To have an organized labor force with which you can make reasonable accommodations through a predictable bargaining process, rather than the complete lack of predictability in the current moment, so you have teachers going off on a wildcat strike. Or you have baristas in Starbucks beginning what, potentially, could be a wildfire campaign of organizing. And this could be the tip of the iceberg. We could be back to the nineteen-thirties, with sitdown strikes, and general strikes, and all sorts of tumult in the labor market, let alone in politics. And if instead, you tried to create a predictable system of industrial relations with a 21st century labor law for a 21st century labor movement in a 21st century economy, I think we could deal with inflation in a pretty straightforward manner.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

The countries that have the highest levels of unionization, say, the Scandinavian countries, are not poor countries. They're rich countries, they're also highly equitable countries. Workers are treated well and they're highly productive. So it's kind of a win-win situation for everybody. But that high-road capitalism requires two parties, it requires employers to be on one side of the table, it requires workers to be at the other side of the table, quite likely with government serving as the good faith party intervening between the two.

DAN RICHARDS: But as Andrew makes clear, providing workers a voice, whether through unions or new institutions and systems that we maybe haven't even invented yet, it isn't just important for creating a vibrant economy in the coming decades, it's more than just our global competitiveness on the line.

ANDREW SCHRANK: In the United States today, at the lower tier of the labor market, you have people who are, at best, running in to stay in place, and in many cases, going backward.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

One way or the other something's got to give. You just can't sustain these levels of inequality through this many shocks over that longer period without seeing some sort of upsurge. That upsurge can either be channeled in a productive direction to create some form of high-road capitalism, or it can be channeled in an unproductive direction by populists, and xenophobes, and bigots, and people who are ultimately going to take a toll, not just on the workers at the lower tier of the labor market, but ultimately on the entire country as society unravels.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

DAN RICHARDS: Andrew Schrank, thank you so much for coming in and talking with us about this.

ANDREW SCHRANK: Thanks very much. It's been a pleasure to be here.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

DAN RICHARDS: This episode of "Trending Globally" was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Sam McKeever Holtzman. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. We'll put links in the show notes to more of Andrew's research and analysis of the labor movement in the US. If you like the show, please make sure to subscribe and leave us a rating and review on whatever listening apps you use. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of "Trending Globally" Thanks.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

About the Podcast

Show artwork for Trending Globally: Politics and Policy
Trending Globally: Politics and Policy
The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

About your hosts

Profile picture for Sarah Baldwin '87

Sarah Baldwin '87

Host, Trending Globally
Profile picture for Dan Richards

Dan Richards

Producer and Co-Host, Trending Globally.