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