- David Rolf, one of the country’s foremost labor leaders, said the old union model “is not coming back” at the Fulcrum Future of Work Conference in Detroit, Michigan.
- Labor unions worked when thousands of employees worked for just a handful of major corporations. Now, workplaces largely contract out work and the gig economy has expanded.
- Instead of unions, “sectoral bargaining” helps workers across an industry — not just at one company. Domestic workers and tomato farmers have already begun to this type of bargaining.
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From teachers to Google contractors, worker strikes made a comeback these last two years — prompting some to say that union membership may start growing again. But according to one of the country’s foremost labor leaders, the union as we know it will not return.
David Rolf worked as an elected union organizer and leader for 26 years. Rolf founded SEIU 775 in Seattle and served as vice president of the international union, which represents 2 million workers. During his tenure, he helped win $15 minimum wages in Seattle, the first major city to adopt this policy.
Despite his efforts with SEIU, Rolf said the old union model, where workers at an individual company bargain with owners for better wages and benefits, will likely not come back. Union members went from being around 30% of the population in the 1950s to just over 10% in 2010. Yet labor is also stirring: just this fall, GM ended its longest strike since 1982.
To Rolf, we’re already in the middle of a seismic shift in organizing.
“My prediction, as someone who spent 26 years as a union organizer and elected union leader and who led some of the largest union organizing drives in American history, is that the old model is not coming back,” he told the audience at the Fulcrum Future of Work Conference in Detroit, Michigan. “There will be no time machine invented that will give us our great-grandfather’s unions of the 30s, or our grandfather’s unions of the 50s, or our parents’ unions of the 70s.”
Rolf explained that unions in the 1930s worked when just a handful of companies, including General Motors, General Electric, and General Foods, had thousands of employees working at one site. Bargaining with just one of these companies set the precedent for the entire industry: IBM, a non-union company, waited until GE settled their contract to offer competitive salaries to job seekers.
In 2019, work looks drastically different. Workplaces are largely fissured, meaning they employ some salaried workers but contract out their HR or cleaning crews to temp agencies. Drivers in the gig economy aren’t technically “employees” for Uber or Lyft.
“Although it’s inspiring to see teachers and auto workers and fast-food workers strike off the job, the future does not lie in enterprise bargaining,” Rolf said, referring to the traditional company-focused union model.
Here’s what the ‘new labor movement’ might look like
Some threads can already be seen in the way workers through “sectoral bargaining,” or a form of organizing which includes workers from across an industry, not just at a specific company.
Maids and nannies, for instance, recently passed statewide policies called the “Domestic Worker Bill of Rights” to that grants basic protections like overtime pay and a minimum wage. Tomato workers in Florida organized as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to pressure many growers to increase wages and greatly reduce workplace abuse.
Rolf worked with Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi in 2018 to pen a letter calling for portable benefits for drivers, instead of full-time employee status. This benefit system would still protect workers from on-the-job injuries and grant them sick leave, but keep them as independent contractors.
Rolf said a strong labor movement is still imperative for a strong middle class. But, he said, labor law reform will likely go the way of marijuana legalization: the grassroots movement will first push for policy change in local communities, which then make their way to state and federal legislature.
“We shouldn’t be too rosy about whether we invented the next labor movement,” Rolf said in Detroit. “We probably haven’t yet, but all of its component parts are sitting out there somewhere. Like all innovation, it is a combination of old things and new things. We have to figure out which pieces of the old we can assemble into new.”