Labor Unions and the Future (2023)

Join the conversation on Twitter using #TheFutureOfUnions.

Unions help ensure that working people earn decent pay and benefits and have a voice in American democracy. Unfortunately, decades of attacks on unions, as well as a changing economy, have eroded the power of unions in the United States. As a result, workers’ wages and well-being have declined, and society has become much more unequal.

At a time when stronger unions are sorely needed, David Madland’s new bookRe-Union: How Bold Labor Reforms Can Repair, Revitalize, and Reunite the United Statesexplains how to design a new labor system for today’s economy with enhanced rights for workers, incentives for union membership, and greater sectoral bargaining to complement worksite-level bargaining. The new labor system draws on examples from U.S. history and countries around the world as well as state and local reforms spearheaded by innovative labor leaders and progressive policymakers to build power for workers and address the fundamental economic and political challenges facing the country.

Please join the Center for American Progress for a discussion on the future of labor policy with David Madland, Mary Kay Henry, and Dorian Warren.

We would love to hear your questions. Please submit any questions for our distinguished panel via email at or on Twitter using #TheFutureOfUnions. Live captioning will be available on Zoom and on the YouTube livestream.

Distinguished panelists:
Mary Kay Henry, International President, Service Employees International Union
David Madland, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress

Dorian Warren, President, Community Change


Dorian Warren:

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to this book event, Labor Unions and the Future, sponsored by the Center for American Progress. I am Dorian Warren of Community Change and Economic Security Project. And before we get into discussion and before I introduce our panelists, I just want to go over a quick couple of housekeeping items. First, live captioning is available using the closed captions tab at the bottom of your screen. We will be taking questions at the end of the program, so please feel free to submit them using the questions tab on your screen or on Twitter using the hashtag #TheFutureOfUnions. As a reminder, make sure that you submit those questions on the questions tab. I’m just reminding you again because we want to hear from you. Finally, a recording of this event will be available at, where you can register for all of CAP’s upcoming events and watch recordings of previous events.

With that, I’m going to introduce our two distinguished panelists. First, we will hear from David Madland. David is a senior fellow and senior adviser to the American Worker Project at American Progress. He has been called one of the nation’s wisest youngest scholars by Washington Post columnist, our dear friend, E.J. Dionne. He is the author of Hollowed Out: Why the Economy Doesn’t Work without a Strong Middle Class in 2015 and, hot off the press, Re-Union: How Bold Labor Reforms Can Repair, Revitalize, and Reunite the United States. We’re going to hear a lot about this fantastic new book from Cornell University Press.

Secondly, we will hear from the great, the one and only, Mary Kay Henry, who is the international president of the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU). For some of you that may not know, Mary Kay became the first woman ever elected to lead SEIU in 2010. You probably know her work because it was Mary Kay’s decision to back fast-food workers and other service and care workers in what we now know as the historic Fight for $15 and a union movement that has helped 24 million working Americans win wage increases. I’m so delighted to have Mary Kay with us here. And I want to get into the book, David. So, I’m going to start with you and just ask you, why did you write this book? Talk to us about what was not being said in terms of the broad range of labor reforms and labor law reforms that needed to be said.

David Madland:

Great. Well, thanks, Dorian. And thanks, Mary Kay and CAP, for giving me this opportunity to talk about my book. I appreciate it. I wrote this book because the U.S. faces a number of significant challenges. Wages have been stagnant for many workers for over four decades. We have near-record levels of economic inequality. We have huge racial and gender divides, social breakdowns, decline in trust, partisan polarization, and the really weakening democracy. I felt that stronger unions could help us solve those problems. They raise wages, reduce inequality, close pay gaps, and they make democracy work by getting more people into the process and helping advocate for the positions that the working class supports.

Unions, they help balance power in our economy and democracy, and that’s fundamentally needed right now. But I felt the discussion around unions was limited. What people were thinking about the future and what the possibilities were wasn’t enough. And so, I wanted to research and look at lessons from around the world, U.S. cities and states, and U.S. history to find out what really worked. And what I found was, I think, that three core things were needed to strengthen the labor movement to really address America’s challenges. The first was about rights, ensuring that workers have strong union rights, the ability to join a union through a fair process, the right to strike and protest, and penalties for companies that violate the law.

And that’s where most of the discussion has been about unions. That’s where, like, the proactive, which is an absolutely vital piece of legislation, this needs to pass. And it’s key but not enough. I felt we needed to go forward and have a bigger vision for, really, not just having rights, but the second thing I thought we needed were incentives for workers to join unions to actively encourage them. Unions, in my view, are a public good. They provide benefits for all of society, a democracy that works, an economy that works for people. But the thing about public goods is you get less of them unless you support them in many different ways. In the U.S., we support small businesses. We provide them with government loans and government contracts and anti-monopoly policy. And so, I felt we needed to think of unions in a similar way and provide a whole range of supports, not just rights. And you can join if you want, but actually, this is a public good, and we’re going to help you do that.

And then the last thing that I felt was we needed to improve the way we bargain: U.S. bargains mostly work site by work site, and I felt we needed to bargain at a broader level, which people tend to call sectoral bargaining or broad-based bargaining. And that is good in a lot of ways. It raises wages for more workers, it reduces inequality more; it also tends to lead to higher productivity in the economy and has a bunch of other positive features. So, really, I felt rights incentives and sectoral bargaining were key. To summarize, I wrote the book because I was concerned about the direction of the country, and I felt that there was a path forward that really could help everyone.

Dorian Warren:

I want to follow up here and just note the argument you make in the book about unions as a public good. I just want to lift it up so that everybody hears it—and, especially, what you just outlined, David. The comparison with what government does to promote small businesses was very striking, and, I thought, original in terms of, “Yeah, we provide small businesses with loans and contracts and subsidies.” And it is in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act that it should be the government policy to promote collective bargaining and unionization. We’ve come a long way from that.

I want to fast forward, and I think it’s probably for the people watching and listening, we know there is a crisis. We’ve been having this conversation at least my entire adult life about the crisis and the labor movements and declining membership, particularly in the private sector. We’ve all lived through the attacks on public sector unions. So, there are lots of ways to describe the problem. But David, I actually want you to take us to the future a little bit. Imagine it’s 2035, and your alternative, what you call, labor system or broad-based bargaining is enacted. Paint a picture for us of what life looks like for workers under your proposed alternative system.

David Madland:

Well, that’s obviously the dream, and we’re hoping to get there. I think some of the big things you’ll see: Hopefully, workers’ wages should be increasing in line with their productivity. That was what we had throughout much of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s for most workers—obviously, not for all workers, especially excluded workers at that time, African Americans and women. As the economy grows, workers should benefit from that growth. They help make it happen. We also should see much smaller pay gaps between women and men, between people of color and whites—in short, an economy that is really geared for most everyone, is inclusive, and helps benefit. We should see that similar work gets similar pay. Now, this is the long-standing view of what labor movement has been pushing for, but I think we need a set of policies that help make that happen. So, you do a similar job and someone else at another company is doing similar work, and you’re both receiving similar pay.

I think the last thing we would think about, we also would have a functioning democracy. This is really key. We’re at this teetering moment where, I think, we’re all afraid—and there are many different reasons: There are cultural fights, there’s political polarization. But I think if you step back, at the core of what’s happened is that there’s been this tremendous economic dislocation where people at the top have done very well, and most people have not. And so, we’re fighting over scraps, and it has led to exacerbate racial and gender divides and blaming others for our problems.

And so, I think we’ll see a period where most people feel they have some influence and power in our economy and our democracy, that they feel their voice is heard, that their representatives listen to them and actually do what they want. So, policy will be about the public good. It sounds like nirvana and may be almost far-fetched. But this is the point of democracy: It actually responds to what the public wants, and that is genius. I think we can ultimately get back to that.

Dorian Warren:

Yeah. I’ve often walked around with this idea in my head from a very early age, and then I learned it as an academic. But without a strong labor movement, we don’t have a strong democracy, period. There’s evidence around the world on that. And so, my last question to you for now, David—and then I’m going to bring in Mary Kay—you did mention there are some lessons. You researched labor movements and labor systems from around the world. You looked at our own history, looked at what’s happening in state and local levels. Tell us a bit about what you learned, what are those lessons learned from other places, including from our own history in this country.

David Madland:

I’ll try to do that quickly. The democracy lessons, I think, are pretty easy and pretty clear—that countries that want to strengthen their democracies tend to strengthen their labor movement. You saw that most recently after South Africa, after apartheid, wanted to strengthen its labor movement as part of ensuring that everyone had a voice. You saw that after World War II, countries like Germany. This was actually part of U.S. policy to strengthen the labor movement. You also see authoritarian leaders, one of the first things they do is seek to weaken the labor movement because that’s a challenge to their power, whether it was Hitler or, in Hungary today, Orbán. I think that’s the democracy story.

The economic story, and what we see from other countries, similarly, is that when they have a weak labor movement, you can look at … people thought and talked about unions, and they say the Nordic countries, Sweden and Denmark, they have strong labor movement, and they have a really strong economy, high wages, and low inequality. And that’s seen as what most people look to. But I especially look to countries that people are more comfortable comparing us to: Australia, Britain, and Canada, our neighbors. And what I [see] there is that labor movement is—if you look at Britain and Australia, they used to have very strong labor movement, 50 percent density or above in those countries, and a sectoral bargaining system. But they changed their laws, and they went more toward a U.S.-style system and may have had predictable problems: rising inequality, stagnant wages, and the like. And Canada, which has a very similar system to the U.S. but all of the stronger rights where most of the debate has been focused, unions there are struggling, and they also have stagnant wages and inequality, and they’re left in Canada.

(Video) Event Recap: Labor Unions and the Future

The labor movement in Canada and Australia and Britain all are seeking to move toward a more sectoral system and the kind of incentives that I’m describing. I think one of the core lessons is that—and then we can go into the U.S. history, but I don’t want to talk too long; I want to make sure we get to Mary Kay—because we have a history of these things working in U.S. cities and states and history, but it really looks that this is where most of the world and most places see the future: toward designing a system like what I’m describing.

Dorian Warren:

Thank you, David. Mary Kay Henry, I want to bring you into the conversation because you have spent your entire career—as an organizer, as a leader, as the international president of SEIU—grappling with this core challenge and problem of the lack of worker power, to put it bluntly. And so, can we just start with what you see? By the way, I’m reminded of an amazing 2019 speech that you gave, and we can probably find it and put it in the chat, just about the future of the labor movement. Can you talk to us, from an SEIU perspective, about what you see as what’s wrong with our current system of collective bargaining and labor relations? And what are the big changes you think are necessary?

Mary Kay Henry:

Thanks so much, Dorian. Let me just say how incredible it is to be part of a panel where the founding premise is that unions are a social good and that David’s work is creating a North Star for how we expand, how we fight to increase workers’ power in the economy and democracy. I really appreciate being part of it. And then to your question, Dorian, I think what we see with the emergence of a service and care economy in the U.S. that has largely been nonunion from the beginning of time and that many of the jobs were written out in the original New Deal in the ’30s based on race and gender: And so, the bargaining got broken from the beginning of the writing of the rules.

I think what David does is argue for, how do we rewrite the rules in every way we can to make sure that workers get a seat at the table, especially workers that have been excluded or who have been excluded because of misclassification or being named independent contractors when, in fact, they’re employees, or McDonald’s saying, “I’m not the employer; the franchise owner is the employer,” when McDonald’s sets all the terms and conditions for the franchise owners—wages and benefits?

And so, there are lots of ways in which the jobs in the current economy got set up to be a workaround by corporations of the current set of rules for workers to join together. And that’s why I really support David’s idea that it’s got to be rights, incentives, and improving bargaining and thinking about bargaining where the economic decisions are made by the employers, not simply warehouse by warehouse, grocery store by grocery store, fast-food store by fast-food store. But let’s get workers at a table that’s strong enough to actually end poverty-wage work and raise wages and benefits for all working people.

Dorian Warren:

Mary Kay, I want to follow up on what you just said because what you’ve articulated, it’s in David’s book, is how we’ve taken for granted as somehow natural firm or workplace bargaining. And as David pointed out and as you have argued—I just put your fantastic unions-for-all speech in the chat—there are other models of bargaining. There is sectoral bargaining or industry bargaining. David talks a lot about this in the book. I know SEIU has already moved, in state and local campaigns, toward this alternative model of bargaining. Can you talk to us a bit about what you’ve done and what you’ve learned from those experiences?

Mary Kay Henry:

Yeah. I would say, for me, I got transformed in the work that I did from ’99 to 2004 with hospital workers in California, where our union is a health care workers’ union. Our tradition had been to organize hospital by hospital and then bargain wages and benefits. And what we noticed was the industry was consolidating around us, and individual hospitals were organizing into what was called “health systems”—that instead of one hospital being owned and having a board of directors, the one I was organizing in California had 28 in three states. And that’s, by today’s standards, a small system. And so, our theory there was that we had to organize all the workers in those hospitals all at once and create a system table to bargain better wages and benefits.

It took us eight years, after 20 years of bargaining with three individual hospitals in that system; so, it was a combined fight. But we were able, in the first contract, to win fully paid employee health care because the employer understood that the other large system, Kaiser, did that as a standard. And if they wanted to hold workers and reduce their own training and orientation costs, they had to raise the standard to match the union competitor. It leapfrogs years and years and years of trying to raise benefits and standards for workers to bargain at the place where the decisions are made about how to allocate the profits being generated by the system. And so, that’s just one example that whet our appetite to say, “We want to back the Fight for $15 and a union demand of fast-food workers all across the country.”

We can’t organize store by store because those are multinational corporations that operate around the world. The bargaining that is done in other countries with fast food is done at the national level. And so, our vision is to create the conditions for McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King to come to their senses and decide to set a national table, so that we can raise wages for the 1.5 million people they directly employ, but [also] impact wages and benefits for the other 3 million workers that do fast food in this country. And that could create a sea change in a big piece of the service economy that would impact care workers and retail workers and gig workers.

All kinds of workers in the service and care economy need an intervention like Ford, GM, and Chrysler were to auto in the last century. Ford made a deal; GM and Chrysler had to match it. That created a form of sectoral bargaining that was, frankly, not written into law but became the practice of the auto companies as a way to get their production done. And so, that’s the same imagination we need in the 21st century for the current workforce.

Dorian Warren:

Thanks, Mary Kay. I want to go directly to an issue. I’m going to come to you first, Mary Kay, and then, David, I’ll come back to you because you also write about this in your book. But I want to talk about race in America for a minute because it is at the core, I think, of why we have such a weaker labor movement than other places. I’m remembering Du Bois wrote about this in the ’30s about the role of unions and union organization in terms of fostering multiracial solidarity. I have a mentor, Jack Metzger, who I think might be on this call: We used to talk for hours about the difference between, particularly, white workers in a union versus white workers, say, in an evangelical church—two different kinds of political education, and they show up differently at the voting booth.

There’s a recent paper by Jake Grumbach and Paul Farmer, which shows that unionization actually reduces white racial resentment in terms of political attitudes and voting behavior. Mary Kay, talk to us about the future of the labor movement in terms of cross-racial, multiracial, organizing. What is the promise and what is the task to be done in terms of multiracial organizing in the labor movement?

Mary Kay Henry:

Yeah. Heather McGhee writes about this in The Sum of Us, and there’s a lived experience that we’ve had—I’ve had as an organizer my whole life. I started organizing in nursing homes, and the biggest reason we would lose in a nursing home is when the administrator would use an anti-union consultant to pit Black, Asian, brown—depending on the demographic makeup of the nursing home—white workers against each other by offering just a little bit more to the Filipina CNAs [certified nursing assistants] in order to divide them from the Black and brown dietary and laundry workers. And so, there are the seeds of the divide and conquer tactic.

But I think in this moment, Dorian, we are called as a labor movement to move beyond simply saying, “We’re in this together, and we can’t let the boss divide us.” I think we have to move to a challenge as labor leaders, myself as a white woman, in dealing with: We’re not just a multiracial movement, we are called to create cross-racial solidarity, which means that every worker, depending on their racial identity, has to understand how their economic condition has been impacted by systemic racism in the U.S. and corporate power and how those two things intersect with each other to hold wages and benefits down to impact education and housing and transportation in every institution in our country. And that we’re not just in it together; we have to show up for each other to fight for each other’s liberation and to end the oppression.

And so, the best expression of that in our experience is the Fight for $15 and a union where white, Black, and brown workers have intentional conversations about racism in America and how it lands on every community and why it’s in the interests of white workers who experience it every day … like white workers in a fast-food store understand how race is used in the store to maintain the control and power of the manager, just straight up.

And so, white workers understanding that the Black and brown-majority workforce in the fast-food sector isn’t by accident. It got structured in based on education, housing, and whatnot, and the low wages are a decision that we have to challenge. And so, that’s the kind of labor movement that we have to become. And the Fight for $15, for us—the airport worker organizing, all of the organizing SEIU in many parts of the labor movement is doing right now—is in the sectors of the economy where it’s majority workers of color. We have to link the fights for racial and economic justice in order to challenge the systems and structures that divide us in every aspect of our lives, not just work.

Dorian Warren:

True visionary. Thank you, Mary Kay, for that. David, same question to you because you do talk about racial injustices, gender injustices. We know that wage theft is particularly prevalent with undocumented workers and immigrant workers. So, talk to us about the role of the labor movement in advancing racial and gender justice, in your vision.

David Madland:

Sure. Well, as you know, and you’ve written a lot about this topic as well, and you highlighted that one of the things I cite in my book is how the labor movement represents more people of color than all of the other organizations that are specifically about workers, about people of color from, you know, whatever other groups. And that is, I think, part that, one, the labor movement has scale; it represents a lot of people. But also, the people it represents—and especially because today’s working class is very much people of color as well as certainly whites as well—but the labor movement looks like and represents the American public, which is very different than most every other organization in the country.

And so, because of that, and also because of its mission as Mary Kay was talking about, it has this unique potential and capability to create the kind of multiracial democracy that we want and need. Now, certainly, the labor movement’s history is checkered, mixed—some horrible examples of racism, sexism, all of that. But it also has the history of, and from the very beginning, also promoting equality, and generally, its experience has been better than the U.S.’. I think, today, it is really one of the champions for equality, and it does that in a lot of different ways.

You mentioned one of the studies, which shows that the education and process helps inform workers about the way the economy actually works at this division. And so, it leads to less racial animosity among its members, especially whites. And so, they understand that; but beyond this, just this individual role of education, the systematic things that they do by raising wages for all workers and ensuring that there’s a fair process for hiring, firing, and the like, there were significant reductions in pay gaps and the like.

But even more than that, there’s this broader societal change that happens when you reduce inequality. And that’s what’s central to what unions do. Inequality is a key facet that makes us trust each other less. It enables the racial divisions to be more because we think other people are different from you. But when you live in a society that is more equal, you tend to think people are similar to you and you are more willing to give them the benefit of doubt. So, it’s this individual-level stuff—the contracts as well as the societal change that unions help push—that is, I think, so vital.

(Video) The future of labor unions as membership is on the decline

Dorian Warren:

I have a couple more questions for the two of you, and I just want to remind our viewers and listeners that we’ll be answering your questions in about 10 minutes, so please submit those using the questions tab on your screen. I want to back up to the vision of the book, David, and the vision that you articulated, Mary Kay. And let’s fast forward to 2035 again; let’s go into the future for a bit. David, in the book, you talk about all the obstacles to get to the promised land, to the North Star, so employer opposition and blatant violations of the law, a system that was structured for a different industrial era, the filibuster, I would add. By the way, there are political constraints on, say, the proactive or other bold labor reforms. The question here is how do we get from where we are right now, in terms of the crisis of worker power, to your vision in 2035? Mary Kay, I’m going to ask you the same question. So, how do we get from here to there? What’s the strategy?

David Madland:

Yes. It’s certainly a narrow path and not an easy path, but bold change is possible. America is resilient, and we occasionally do very much pass this kind of policy. The first thing, certainly, is [that] the organizing on the ground, the workers in motion, and demanding changes is central. There’s no possibility of capturing the public’s attention and getting Congress to listen without the public, the grassroots, really demanding change. And then, you get the politicians doing things and believing in this.

The grassroots is starting to happen. We have had more strikes in the past couple of years than we have had in decades. Public support of unions is higher than it’s been just about ever. And then, we get politicians—sort of the elite level—starting to discuss and buy into this. And that is starting to happen. One of the more remarkable things, for example, the Democratic Party platform talks about sectoral bargaining. This is a huge transformation. Most every Democratic presidential candidate during the last election talked about this kind of a vision, talked about sectoral bargaining as one of their proposals.

And then, the last—and I think this is the most important thing, and this is what I argue, and that’s the point of my book—is that the people, and especially elites, but everyone needs to buy in and believe that this vision is going to help solve our problems and that it’s practical and realistic. And this is my view, that the importance of ideas, especially when you’re talking about bold changes that you think the idea is right, that it’s ultimately going to work. And so, we’re at this point where we’re struggling, the country’s struggling, but people are more open and willing to bigger changes than they have been. They’re crying out, I think, for change.

And then, I think the work that we have to do is about saying not only is this possible but it really has proven successful. We have talked some about the international models, but I think there’s also a lot about the American models. This isn’t just taking from other countries; we have a strong tradition of this kind of stuff. And if we pull enough of our successful models, we can really do it. Mary Kay Henry mentioned the auto workers. That was almost sectoral bargaining from U.S. history, and really, that actually was one of the core things that built the American middle class. But it wasn’t just in autos and steel and communication workers, and even in textiles; we had similar models. They were really dependent, though, on incredibly high union density in those sectors, near 100 percent in some cases.

But we can build a model where we are boosting union membership but also making that kind of bargaining easier and building on some of the state and local panels that Mary Kay and her union and several other unions have been pushing—that we have, for example, incentives to encourage workers to join unions. That is a workforce training system that works in, especially, construction, but also you have it in some home care, where unions and management come together, and they create a good training program, and that leads to better results for the workers, but it also incentivizes workers to join the unions. So, we can build on those models and show that they work. So, there’s this groundswell and then the recognition that these ideas will work and help get us where we need to go.

Dorian Warren:

Thanks, David. And Mary Kay, same question to you: How do we get from here, where we are in this moment in 2021, to that North Star of a strong, vibrant labor movement with worker power underneath it, fueling it? How do we get from here to there?

Mary Kay Henry:

I think a key thing that I just want to underscore that David said is labor and worker centers, together, have to back the loud demands of workers that are happening all across the economy and that I saw escalate during the pandemic as a front-line essential workers were continuing to go to work and facing horrific conditions. Many walked off the job, many joined together and acted like a union with their employer to deal with their own health and safety needs and demands for hazard pay. We have to back workers’ demands in making and backing them. We have to link the fight for racial and economic justice in workers’ minds and in the minds of the public so they understand how it’s inextricably linked.

The second thing we have to do is innovate on the models, and that’s why what David said is true: We’re pursuing state innovation, federal innovation, and innovation directly with employers who understand the public good aspect of unions. And if they really care about reducing racial and economic inequality, they’re going to figure out how to voluntarily set tables with workers. And so, the fast-food workers in California helped lead on [the Fight for] 15 in 2015. They’re now leading on creating a sectoral table where fast-food workers, franchise owners, and state government would come together and think about the standards for that work, where way too many workers in the past year in California got infected and died because they didn’t have standards either on health and safety or on wages—or, for God’s sake, two weeks of paid sick time where they could stay home and quarantine without loss of income. So, that’s one model.

A second one is a historic investment that we’re fighting tooth and nail to win right now, which is President [Joe] Biden said, “Let’s put $400 billion into home care jobs.” We have too many waiting lists for elders and people with disabilities in states all across the country. Let’s allow those people the choice to live at home with dignity and health, and let’s raise wages of poverty-wage work that’s been excluded from overtime and unemployment insurance and workers’ comp and make it a real job that, primarily, women of color can raise their families on.

If we could change the conditions of the fastest-growing job in America, which is home care, it will have a ripple effect all throughout the economy; but it also has a ripple effect in the community, where intergenerational poverty has been passed from one caregiver to the next because they love the work, they see it as a mission to care for people at home and to figure out how to do it given the condition of the elder, but we’ve never honored or valued the work. It would be a game changer on dealing with racial and gender exclusion and investing in a job when 22 million people are on the sidelines. We can get more people back in the game doing work that they love.

Dorian Warren:

Mary Kay, I so appreciate you raising up some of the lessons over the last year and change in the midst of a pandemic, which was so important. David, I’ll invite you to offer any lessons learned as well over the last year. But I do want to go to the Q&A portion of this program. So, just a reminder, submit your questions using the questions tab on your screen, and we have a few that have come in already. So, the first one, I’ll direct to you first, David, and then, Mary Kay, feel free to jump in. What role can alt-labor organizations such as worker centers, and Mary Kay has mentioned this earlier, what role can worker centers, as well as organizing efforts by traditional unions such as United for Respect, previously known as OUR Walmart, what role can alt-labor play in building powerful workers?

David Madland:

Well, I think a key in several ways is that getting workers in motion and organized and, actually, demanding change is essential in every way. Of course, it puts some pressure on employers, but also, then, it can help make the politicians respond. But the second is some of the specific things that they’re pushing for—what the kind of change they’re doing. And oftentimes, this alt-labor has either been because the law excluded them from basic organizing rights, so they’re often representing the workers who have no union rights, or that the way the employer has been structured makes it very, very hard to organize in traditional ways. And so, they, I think, can both help experiment and show because they will …

Dorian Warren:

David, pause for a minute. I just want to unpack something you just said for the audience: So, you said the way corporations are structured—what do you mean by that?

David Madland:

Well, economists tend to call this “fissuring,” where the lead employer, the brand name you’ve heard of, has many layers and layers of subcontracting or franchises or whatever that separate them, the lead firm, from the worker. They don’t consider themselves necessarily the employer. And so, it makes it very hard to bargain to actually raise wages because, oftentimes, these small intermediary employers are vulnerable in capital costs: They can’t raise prices, they don’t have anything to deal with, so [there’s] the traditional style of bargaining with this really heavily fissured sector. And that’s the times that we talk about, and Mary Kay represents a lot of them—home care or fast food, domestic work, and some others. Sadly, this is where the economy is going for a lot of other workers too.

They have the opportunity to experiment and improve and figure out different kinds of models because the workplace-by-worksite bargaining is really, often, not enough. I see them creating and pushing models; when you see, for example, the Domestic Workers Alliance has been promoting sectoral bargaining and incentives to encourage workers to join. So, they want to be able to provide portable benefits for the members that often don’t get benefits to the traditional laws that the rest of us get. They’re excluded from unemployment insurance.

Domestic Workers have a bill at the federal level. They also have pushed for, like in Seattle and in Philadelphia, these standards boards that can help create a bargaining table and raise standards for all the workers, no matter how they’re categorized—whether they’re independent contractor employees—so they don’t have to bargain with the little shops; they can actually figure out a standard. I see them key as in building powerful workers, organizing, pushing, and developing models that can spread throughout the rest of the economy.

Dorian Warren:

Mary Kay, same question for you. And you know a lot about the fissuring of the workplace. I think I saw an article last week: McDonald’s is raising wages, but then when you look underneath that, 95 percent of McDonald’s workers actually will not benefit. What’s the role of alt-labor, of worker centers, in addressing some of these questions?

Mary Kay Henry:

Well, our direct experience in home care with the National Domestic Workers Alliance [NDWA] has been that the NDWA has added a dimension to decades of organizing that we’ve done in the care sector by uniting parts of civil society that we wouldn’t have access to because of long-standing biases against unions. I think that’s a really important disruptor of how power is organized in the ecosystem. The second thing NDWA has done is linked arms with a lot of organizations to create caring across generations and to think about care for children and care for elders as a part of how we strengthen American families. That has been a huge additive framework for organizing in both those sectors, I would say.

(Video) Labor Secretary Reflects on the Future of Unions

And the third thing that’s happened in our union beyond care is in janitorial worker centers [that] have gone to parts of the economy that the labor movement hasn’t gotten to. So, Target retail chain contracted out janitors, wanted to organize for a long time—our local in Minneapolis couldn’t wrap their heads given the number of fights they were in about getting to that fight CTUL did as a worker center, and they formed a partnership to create a collective bargaining breakthrough where CTUL and our local now jointly represent and bargain for those janitors. And so, I think what workers’ centers do is escalate the innovation that is required by the American labor movement right now. I think we both have to back worker centers and partner with worker centers to get to scale.

There’s a lot of worker center innovation in parts of the Amazon ownership. Imagine if we could get a group of unions and worker centers rowing in the same direction to challenge the corporate power and structural racism and environmental disaster that Amazon represents in our democracy and economy. And so, that’s the kind of thing that the growth of worker centers has allowed. I think of it as the institutional part of the labor movement, not the Fight for $15 kind of more movement part of our movement, but it needs to think more strategically about how to join forces with the worker centers.

Dorian Warren:

David, Mary Kay just mentioned Amazon, so we’re not going to get out of this conversation without talking about Amazon. I’m going to direct this question to you first, David, and then, Mary Kay; I know you have some thoughts here too. So, the question is how do we overcome unionization defeats such as the effort in Bessemer, Alabama, in terms of Amazon? And how do we overcome negative views about unions? I would add, probably, employer opposition, quite frankly. So, talk to us about Amazon. What did we learn? How do we overcome the constraints there?

David Madland:

To me, I think Amazon illustrates a lot of the flaws with the current labor system, and most of the debate, and rightly so, is focused on the employer power that Amazon had to, for example, make it very, very difficult and intimidate workers about wanting to have a fair choice—even whether they force them to have one-on-one meetings or with anti-union consultants telling them misinformation about unions, sort of fact-checking is where the unions can access the workers in the same way. They even had, potentially, a mailbox put up on site that perhaps, at least allegedly, Amazon had access to, which, maybe, intimidated workers. It illustrates this idea of real basic rights that workers need. But I think it also highlights some broader challenges. Certainly, it illustrates the racial challenges of a largely African American workforce against the richest white guy in the world and the, sort of just, power differences.

There were allegations that Amazon would threaten to close this particular warehouse. They were trying to bargain at just this warehouse that leaves those workers particularly vulnerable because then the wage cost at that distribution center would be higher than at other ones. And so, maybe they would move and work elsewhere. And so, it illustrates, I think, about thinking about bargaining in a different way that actually you need to cover all the work so that the employer can’t escape. That is a key thing: That the more options the employer has to avoid it, the more power they have to fight and crush the union. And so, when you can structure a bargaining system in a better way, you can avoid that.

The other thing that Amazon did in a very good way is we were having a discussion and debate about unions in a way I don’t think we have had. President Biden made one of the most important speeches that I’ve heard, in certainly my lifetime, about unions that it’s the worker’s choice. They should be able to choose. The president really has been, I think, very forceful about making a similar set of arguments that unions really are essential to rebuilding the middle class, to making more society work better. And so, it helped spark that attention to, “Well, this is the kind of discussion we need.”

Dorian Warren:

On Amazon, Mary Kay Henry, I know you have thoughts, lessons learned.

Mary Kay Henry:

I just think it is the very in-our-face example of what’s wrong with the American economy and democracy and the ability of workers to have a say. I think of it in much the same way as I’ve answered other questions, which is we have to back the workers’ demands in the warehouses, as delivery drivers, in all other aspects of that company. We need to examine how much the federal and state government contracts with Amazon to get public services done, like the U.S. Postal Service contract that Amazon has that was negotiated by the last administration, and how are we using every lever of government to hold this corporation accountable to a set of standards that they are establishing because of their market power in every community in the country.

On the other hand, I think the use of technology and the way they are escalating the introduction of technology into every aspect of work is the other thing that we need to join forces and think about how are we engaging. And then, there’s another area of how do we as a nation think about the size of this corporation, its dominance in our life, and antitrust? And I know the worker center parts that have been engaged with Amazon together with parts of the labor movement are trying to think about, “What do we think about the degree to which Amazon can impact a supply chain way beyond the visible parts of the corporation that we see?”

And so, just like our multiyear commitment to get McDonald’s to come to its senses, I think we need a multiyear commitment at the scale that Amazon operates on to get Amazon to come to its senses—either directly through a movement pressure or through government intervention. Both things, I think, are going to be required to establish the right conditions with Amazon in the U.S.

Dorian Warren:

Thanks, Mary Kay. OK. So, David and Mary Kay, this is going to be the speed round of the conversation. I’m going to throw some questions at you. Take your pick, get your pen handy, because I’m going to read about four different questions that have come in, but there are some things here. The first is around the public sector. There are two questions here. One is, how might sectorial bargaining look in the public employee rounds such as public education or, say, hospitals? There’s a second question here about what could be appropriate solutions for the large outsource contracting of U.S. government, public employees? There is a bundle of questions there around the public sector and public employees. Then, there’s a question about right to work: The question is, “I live in a state with a high union rate, but as I listen, I’m thinking about right to work in the states. Do you think progress can be made in rolling back these state laws?” So, a right-to-work question.

Third is the gig worker question, “What about gig workers? How do you propose to effectively organize these workers?” There’s a lot happening in this sector. And then, last but not least—and I’m sure this is directed at you, Mary Kay, but David, you should feel free to answer, and David, I’m going to come to you first—”How can unions bargain over access to child care and elder care as part of a collective agreements? And has the pandemic raised new issues around care for union organizing?” We have public sector questions, a right-to-work question, gig workers, and then the care economy, which, Mary Kay, you have answered some of these already. David, I’m going to start with you. Take your pick and, let’s say, in three minutes or less; then, I’ll turn to you, Mary Kay, and then we’ll wrap up.

David Madland:

All right. I will try. In the public sector, I think there is ability to do some sectoral bargaining and the Canadian teacher model—which people can go research more, I’m happy to talk about it in depth later—has been a successful model where you bring together the representatives of the employers of many different school districts and the state and the teachers’ unions, and they have a similar set of contracts for all the workers, so you don’t have one district put against each other, which tends to lead to better results. And so, they’ve liked that; that’s been a successful model.

But also, we have in the public sector models of encouraging and providing incentives and encouraging workers to join, especially post-Janus, where the Supreme Court effectively made the public sector right to work, so states that wanted unions realized they really needed to encourage union membership. And so, they have brought unions more into training partnerships, into orientations, giving them better access to workers to make the case, even some of the navigation of helping workers understand the health and retirement benefits and making those choices.

I think the public sector really has a lot of models to build on and can expand the contracting-out question, I think, Mary Kay highlighted. There’s two things going on. The choice of whether to contract out or not needs to be a better decision, not just that you cut wages and, therefore, that’s seen as a cost savings. You evaluate the quality of work and the public nature of things and who controls the work, that also needs to be done. But then, once we are contracted, there’s certainly going to be some work that is contracted out that private firms do better, but we hold them to high standards that enable and facilitate unionization and good wages and the like.

The last, I’m going to try to get to right to work. When the public has a choice to vote, Missouri, not too long ago, overturned right to work. The public is supportive of these kinds of policies, even right to work, which is perhaps one of the least popular union positions. I think there’s really an opportunity where the public is, when you can get politicians to listen. And so, sometimes that takes more direct ballot access and the like, rather than going through the legislature.

The last, I’ll try to get to gig workers. I think what we do—I think the same concepts I’ve described were applied. First, we need to ensure the laws and rights apply so that they’re not misclassified, but they are actually truly independent contractors and the like. But then, if and when they are, they can still have bargaining rights and incentives to encourage membership. And those things, in fact, are more and more important because the independent contractor, kind of, who are they going to bargain with? And so, you find a way to bargain at a higher level where you’re structuring all of the work in that sector, not just leaving this one relatively weak individual trying to negotiate a high standard, and you figured out a way to create a table that forces high standards for all workers. I’ll let Mary Kay have a chance to try to get at all of those now too.

Mary Kay Henry:

Thanks so much, David. I’ll start at the care bargaining. Labor unions absolutely can include employer investment in elder care and child care, either in the form of a cents-per-hour fund that gets created, where we bargain across employers for an amount of money on payroll that subsidizes child care for families, creates child care centers in worksites. Those are the innovations that were occurring in the ’70s and ’80s when we had more strength as bargaining agents. Remember, our 35 percent bargaining strength has been crushed to hovering at 11, going down to 10 in the private sector, where it’s 6.

Our impact of bargaining for the greater good has been systematically narrow. This goes to the first point David made. And it’s why, I think, the labor movement is trying to use government and the power at the ballot box to elect people to break open how to create child care and elder care benefits through public policy, in addition to what we’re doing at the bargaining table. On gig workers, I think it’s really incumbent on us to back the demands of gig workers, listen to what they say instead of having the companies tell us. Everybody that I employ wants flexibility and, therefore, doesn’t want to be called an employee because it’s too restrictive and it doesn’t allow them to earn what they want to earn as their second income, when we know more and more of these workers are trying to make a living off of a series of gig jobs, and they’re surfing through the gig economy to stitch together at living.

And so, I think the key question for us in gig is, how do we organize across gig employers and then bargain across Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Thumbtack, you name it, to help establish a set of standards for those workers that deals with the flexibility that people want but also the standards of work? Because, we have to acknowledge these are not jobs that people are earning some extra change; these are jobs that people are trying to support families on. And that’s the thing we have to punch through the employer characterization.

And then, I support what David said, I think, Dorian, about public sector, collective bargaining, and how there’s lots of innovation. It would be cool if teachers could lead the breakthrough in sectoral bargaining because we’re going to have more of a power struggle with Amazon and McDonald’s coming to their senses. But “Red for Ed” taught us that the source of power of public funding is in state legislatures. Let’s go to state legislatures and create bargaining across school districts as a minimum standard that school districts could bargain up from.

Dorian Warren:

(Video) David Lazarus: Do labor unions have a future?

Mary Kay and David, I’m going to ask you to leave us with a final thought or insight in 30 seconds or less. Mary Kay, we’ll start with you. What do you want listeners and viewers to walk away with? What’s the one thing you want to leave people with?

Mary Kay Henry:

I think the notion that David makes in this book about unions as a social good. And how can we as a civil society, from every direction possible, back workers, organize, and elect people that are going to incent the creation of unions in the nation? And then, thinking of unions and dealing with multiple issues at the same time—comprehensive immigration reform, creating a path to citizenship, ending structural racism, and dealing with the depth of the economic inequality that is off the chain, out of control, and needs to get reigned in in our nation.

Dorian Warren:

Thanks, Mary Kay. David, final thoughts?

David Madland:

To me, there’s a path forward here. There is a way forward, and it’s proven and it’s based on experience in the U.S. and cities and states in our history as well as other countries, including the countries most like us, that this kind of system works when you have rights, when you have incentives to encourage membership, and when you have a good bargaining system that’s designed to actually cover most workers. That is the path forward, and it’s proven and successful and can work again today.

Dorian Warren:

Thanks, David. I’ll offer my quick one. No labor movement, no middle class. No labor movement, no democracy. Simple as that. I want to thank all of you for joining us today for Labor Unions and the Future, sponsored by the Center for American Progress. Just to remind you, a recording of this event will be available at You can register for all of CAP’s upcoming events and watch recordings of previous events.

Thanks to you for attending. A very special thank you to Mary Kay Henry, the international president of the Service Employees International Union. Thank you for your leadership and your vision, movement-wide, not just in the labor movement. And of course, thank you to David Madland for writing this book, hot off the press. Go out and get it, Re-Union: How Bold Labor Reforms Can Repair, Revitalize, and Reunite the United States, out now from Cornell University Press. Thanks again for joining us, and we are right at time. So, we’ll say goodbye, and see you next time.

Mary Kay Henry:

Thanks, Dorian.

Dorian Warren:

Thank you.

David Madland:

Thank you, Dorian, and thank you, Mary Kay.

Mary Kay Henry:

Of course.

David Madland:

I really enjoyed that. Thank you.

Mary Kay Henry:

Thank you, David.

Dorian Warren:

Yeah, that was fantastic. I learned a lot. Thank you, both. I think we’re all jumping to our next meeting, so see you soon. Bye.

David Madland:

Great to see you all.

Dorian Warren:

You too.


Do labor unions have a future in the US? ›

The US is distinct from other advanced countries not so much by its declining proportion of workers in unions as by the declining proportion of wages and conditions set by collective bargaining and by greater employer opposition to unions. So, do labor unions have a future in the US? Most analysts answer no.

What role do trade unions play in future workplace relations? ›

The principal purpose of a trade union is to regulate employee relations with an employer through: collective bargaining (negotiation about pay and other conditions of employment) consultation (discussions about business and workplace issues that affect levels of employment and terms and conditions of employment).

Are unions making a comeback? ›

While Americans are more likely to believe unions have lost rather than gained power over the past 30 years, there is some evidence of a perceived rebound in their influence over the past year (a finding consistent with data on union elections from the National Labor Relations Board): 31% say unions have gotten ...

What were the 3 main goals of labor unions? ›

For those in the industrial sector, organized labor unions fought for better wages, reasonable hours and safer working conditions.

Why are Labour unions declining? ›

The supply side factors include the costs of organising or mobilising a workforce, the legal environment that permits or prohibits certain types of union activities, how strongly the company management resists collective bargaining, and the ability of a union to capture excess rents the firm generates.

Are unions losing members? ›

The share of U.S. workers who belong to a union has fallen since 1983, when 20% of American workers were union members. In 2021 10.3% of U.S. workers were in a union. Views of the impact of the decline in union membership on the country and working people have changed very little since last year.

Are unions growing in 2022? ›

Unions are on the rise in 2022. Four charts show just how much. - Vox.

Are unions good for the US economy? ›

unionized. Unionized workers earn 10.2% more than their non-union peers, while also raising wages and benefits for all workers in their industry. Unions can play a critical role in narrowing racial and gender economic disparities. Unionization increases wages by 17.3% for Black workers and 23.1% for Latino workers.

What is the biggest challenge facing unions today? ›

The most important challenges unions from developed countries are facing today are globalization and international competition; demographic changes through migration and an ageing workforce; technological changes via elements like the sharing economy and digital innovation like automation; and the impact of climate ...

Why do companies not want unions? ›

There has long been rhetoric that unions do shift the employee-employer relationship—and may impact worker incentivization. When wages are standardized, good conditions are guaranteed, and layoffs are limited, workers have little motivation to work harder, companies argue.


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