The changing face of modern U.S. labor

Story highlights

Protests have erupted over giving workers a "living wage"

For #BlackLivesMatter supporters, black work also matters

Some people fighting for low-wage workers aren't members of unions

CNN  — 

Smoke-free flights, weekends off, health and safety regulations, no more exploitative child labor and even lunch breaks.

As the country celebrates the Labor Day holiday this weekend, workers can thank the U.S. labor movement for all those changes and more over the past two centuries.

Yet most of those battles were fought and won long ago.

A lot has changed since New York City unions hosted the first celebration in 1882 as a tribute to “the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” (Congress made it a federal holiday in 1894.)

The current political and economic landscape isn’t particularly friendly to organized labor. States’ “right to work” laws make it harder for unions to organize; meanwhile, technology and a changing economy challenge unions to sign up members working in increasingly complex businesses and decentralized locations.

So what can organized labor celebrate this Labor Day?

For their part, many unions are still run by people who don’t look like the increasingly female, diverse and immigrant work force they want to represent. And they’re not always using the latest technologies that today’s younger workers use to communicate, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and director of labor education research.

As a result, membership numbers are down. In 1983, the country had 17.7 million members, a union membership rate of 20.1%. Last year, just 11.1% of workers were union members (14.6 million individuals), according to Department of Labor statistics.

Though union participation is flagging, recent battles over fast food and Walmart workers, and a $15-per-hour minimum wage, are coming to the forefront – a development that has some longtime labor experts floored.

“If you had asked any of us who study the labor movement, I don’t think we could have imagined that workers would have been doing national strikes at fast food restaurants and Walmart, that those companies would have been the big campaign,” Bronfenbrenner said.

This new wave of labor protests doesn’t look like the old-fashioned automotive factory shutdowns of yesteryear, but the protests may be the new face of the working class. Keep an eye on these hot-button items over the next year.

A $15 living wage. Organized by the Service Employees International Union in a coalition with fast food workers and others, the Fight for $15 campaign has organized protests across the country focusing union members and nonmembers alike on a specific goal. As a result, in cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles, workers will eventually make a minimum wage of $15 per hour. Chicago raised its minimum to $13. Expect more protests like those in mid-April, which occurred in hundreds of cities across the country.

“Who would have thought a $15 minimum wage would be a reasonable thing to ask for?” asked sociologist Jasmine Kerrissey, a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Labor Relations and Research Center. “It was a started by the Fight for $15, which is basically SEIU and the fast food workers, who didn’t have a union yet. A lot of people got excited, and it became a coalition.”

#BlackWorkMatters. While many members of the decentralized Black Lives Matter movement focus on police brutality and racial inequality, economic injustice is also part of the agenda for the founders and supporters. That should be no surprise, since Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza is the special projects director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Charlene Carruthers, the national director of the Black Youth Project 100, is part of the $15 living wage campaign. Carruthers and other #BlackLivesMatters supporters use the #BlackWorkMatters hashtag to note economic inequality and promote economic opportunity for women and men of color as well as young people.

Black Thursday. While many retailers have opened very early on the Friday after Thanksgiving for years to host Black Friday sales, some stores have started to open on Thanksgiving itself to capture those early Christmas spending dollars. Target, Walmart and Kmart are among the bigger companies that have stayed open on the holiday.

Though hospital workers and firefighters can expect to work the holiday, the notion that many low-wage workers would not have the day off in order for others to shop generated a backlash. More than 100,000 people have liked the “Boycott Black Thursday” Facebook page, and is filled with petitions protesting those retailers. Shoppers still pack the stores on holidays, but those opposed are applauding Nordstrom, Costco and other retailers that stay closed on Thanksgiving.

Online media. Young, savvy tech professionals are so post-modern that they wouldn’t be interested a union, right? Wrong. The uncertain economy and irregular layoffs are concerning to the employees of digital media outlet Gawker, whose staffers voted in June to form a union under the auspices of the Writers Guild of America East, the New York Times reported. They say they want better pay and benefits and improved communication with supervisors, but they don’t want policies that restrict their hours. Gawker company officials didn’t seem to object to the organizing effort, at least in public.

Vice Media followed suit in August, voting to join the same union. Staffers had some of the same interests as Gawker, but there was one aspect of the organizing campaign that was old-school: asking fellow staffers to remember the company founder’s purchase of a $23 million mansion “next time (management) says they can’t afford to give us raises,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Safety in the air. Though some passengers might not worry about knives in the air, flight attendants – many of whom had colleagues who died on September 11, 2001 – do. That’s why the flight attendants were at the head of a coalition that succeeded in reversing a 2013 decision by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration that knives could be allowed on board.

Next up: The flight attendants are tackling the issue of “bleed air” during flights, which they allege could be poisoning cabin crews.

Adjunct professors organizing. As universities hire more part-time professors to teach their courses and those teachers report having to take other jobs or applying for food stamps to stay afloat, the Service Employees International Union’s Adjunct Action campaign is taking off. In the Boston area, part-timers at Boston, Tufts, Northeastern and Lesley universities voted to unionize. So did part-time professors in California at Dominican University of California, Mills College, Otis College of Art and Design in Westchester and Whittier College.

It’s not all unions. Many workers have created organizations to fight for better conditions and more control over their workplaces, but those organizations aren’t necessarily unions. One of the biggest is Our Walmart, a nonprofit with current and former Walmart employees that organizes campaigns to influence company policy. But local centers have popped up everywhere from New Mexico to New York state.

Temp workers unite! Or will they? An August 27 decision by the National Labor Relations Board may open the floodgates to organizing by temporary workers and employees at franchise businesses. The decision rolled back a Reagan-era decision that strictly defined “joint employers.”

What are those? Under the old rule, a company that subcontracted work to a temporary agency could be considered a joint employer with the agency if the company exercised “direct and immediate” control over the employees.

The board broadened the definition to include indirect forms of control. Many companies don’t know what it means, which is why the decision will probably get litigated.

It could change the lay of the land for labor organizers.

If it sticks, it might affect McDonald’s and other companies that work on a franchise model. (McDonald’s doesn’t own most of the McDonald’s restaurants in existence. The company sells franchises to companies or individual owners, who hire their own employees to run the restaurants.)

That would mean unions that organize one franchise could also be allowed to negotiate with the parent company. And that’s why fast food companies, hotels, franchise owners, temporary agencies and other businesses are crying foul at the decision and are promising to fight back.

It should make for an interesting year for a so-called dying movement.