low wage workers, labor unions, union idea, corporate campaigns
This project explores the development of the “union idea” and its role in low wage labor markets in the 21st Century.
The "labor question" became a central issue in the early 20th century because its solution seemed essential to the survival of American democracy itself: could a society based on wage labor provide a rising standard of living and full social participation for those workers? For a time during and after World War II the “union idea” - workplace democracy, working class solidarity, and the allocation of resources partly on a social rather than a market basis – became a widely accepted solution to the labor question. From the 1950s on however, management successfully limited union expansion and circumscribed labor’s power. Unions and policymakers contributed to this decline in the union idea by pressing for firm rather than government provided social benefits and by suggesting a false parity between labor and capital.
Despite the widespread belief that the US solved its labor problem and that the union idea is a relic, recent developments in US labor relations indicate that the opposite is true. The standard of living for workers has stagnated, labor laws are often unenforced, union density has declined, and there is a widespread sense of alienation towards existing political institutions. Gross violations of what were once generally accepted worker rights have become commonplace. For instance wage theft is now rampant in America’s low wage labor markets.
In response to this revival of the labor question some trade unionists have tried to develop a new “union idea” centered on comprehensive campaigns. Rather than bargaining over a narrowly circumscribed set of economic issues, comprehensive campaigns utilize corporate research, community coalition-building, political pressure, and public relations to recapture the political and ideological high ground from employers.
This project examines one comprehensive campaign, UNITE HERE’s campaign at the Westin Hotel in Providence RI. Based on my own participation as an intern with Local 217 and interviews I conducted, I interpret the success of this campaign in light of the literature on union decline, labor law violation, and organizing tactics. My initial conclusion is that comprehensive campaigns are contributing to a “new union idea” that addresses the 21st century labor question. After analyzing the Westin campaign I discuss some of the conditions under which campaigns are most likely to be successful.