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Workers are in demand, and they know it. What role do communities play in the worker’s movement?

By Maura Kay, Assistant Consultant, Analytics

Walkouts, wage hikes, and “we’re hiring” signs welcome you to the workers’ movement. In 2021, Striketober made way for Strikesgiving, reflecting the quantity and scale of actions nationally. In the past few years, we’ve seen more focus on the future of work conversations — often evocative of fully automated Jetsonian futures — while a current workers’ movement grows. This raises questions about the movement’s cause and its impact on the future. What makes this a workers’ movement versus a string of strikes? What can communities do if they see themselves stuck between employers and workers? Communities and practitioners eager to attract businesses and workers should consider historical precedent and current trends to accommodate present and future workers.

What makes a movement?

While ongoing labor disputes are often linked to conditions brought on by COVID-19, a surge in strike activity preceded the pandemic. In 2018, 485,000 workers engaged in strike activity, a twentyfold increase from 2017. From 2018 to 2019, the number of workers involved in work stoppages hit a 35-year high while unemployment remained low.

Union membership, however, remains down. Just 11% of the US population are union members, most of whom work in the public sector. With a 68% approval rating as of August 2021, union popularity is at a 60-year high. Union popularity distinguishes this movement from previous labor rights surges of the recent past.

When labor actions have happened in the last several decades, they have usually been confined to specific industries like teaching and journalism, and remained regional (auto workers in Detroit, coal miners in West Virginia). Today, the movement is spanning industries and regions. Cornell’s labor action tracker, which maps protests and strikes across industries, reveals factory, coal, healthcare, and film and television workers’ struggles are occurring concurrently across the country. A national perspective also shows that many similar complaints are shared across industries. Workers’ control of their own time, from work-life balance to shift standardization, drives pushback on double shifts from factory floors to Hollywood.

Now, the flames of a workers’ movement are being aided by two accelerants: post-pandemic context and a worker’s market. Historical trends inform both.

Post-pandemic context

The pandemic upended workplace status-quos across industries. Distinctions like “essential workers” emerged and fueled disputes over hazard pay in the initial lockdown phase, while burnout issues continue as we enter the 21st month of the pandemic. The Economic Policy Institute found that the rate of union membership among essential workers is, at 12%, just one point higher than the overall national average. However, crucial unionized workers secured many of the early COVID labor wins that served as models across industries.

Pressure from labor disputes influenced the timeline of significant national action from WWI through the Great Depression, culminating in the New Deal. While COVID spurred new labor norms such as remote work Joseph McCartin, professor of history and the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, told NPR that there is historical precedence for a movement, as other historic economic disruptions were followed by periods of significant labor activism:

1916: Federal Compensation Act establishes benefits for workers injured at work
1921: Battle of Blair Mountain sees West Virginia coal miners face violence.
1925: The Pullman Porters organize the first Black labor union.
1933: Frances Perkins, the framer of the New Deal, becomes the Secretary of Labor.
1935: National Labor Relations Act guarantees rights to unionize, collective bargaining, and strike to private-sector workers. The same year, the Social Security Act established a social safety net for aging, unemployed, and disabled people.
1938: Fair Labor Standards Act sets the standard of basic working conditions. Minimum wage, the 40-hour workweek, 8 hour days, and time-and-a-half overtime. Child labor was outlawed.

Attempting to predict a timeline for today’s labor movement would be conjecture, but the history of labor disputes and their impact on policy isn’t a question as much as a lesson.

Workers are in demand, and they know it

Workforce participation has yet to return to pre-pandemic numbers, leaving a worker shortage. As of November 2021, the civilian labor force participation rate was 61.8%, compared to 63.3% in February 2020. The last time labor participation was this low was winter 1977, before women reached current participation rates.

Market demand is already driving many employers to increase compensation. From June to September 2021, wages and salaries increased by 1.5%, the most significant jump in 20 years. Targeted labor actions typically see wins concentrated in specific industries, whereas this movement is seeing gains made across industries.

As of November 2021, unemployment was 4.2%, (compared to 3.5% in February 2020). This marks a divergence from historical trends, where high unemployment has threatened the labor movement, driving the workforce to accept lower wages and reduced benefits just to maintain employment. Today, workers are demanding more as their opportunity costs increase. As we recently discussed, the Great Resignation has seen 40% of US workers looking for better compensation, work/life balance, benefits, and career advancement leaving employers from restaurants to high tech industries struggling to fill vacancies.

Communities are precariously situated between businesses and workers. Given how labor influences economic development, cities and communities can’t sit on the sidelines.

What can communities do?

Recognize the difference between attracting labor and talent from attracting firms

As cities, counties, and communities compete for workers, struggle with improving their labor force participation rate and work to capture the newly expanded remote work force, they should recognize how attracting workers differs from attracting large firms. If communities are confusing the interest of businesses for the interests of their workers, they may be recycling smokestack- chasing tactics. Reasons a person may choose to relocate are very different from why a firm would: tax rates versus amenities, space versus access and connectivity, and worker satisfaction onsite versus work-life balance.

Invest in job training programs that teach skills, not tasks

As labor shortages and tensions continue, employers may increasingly respond with automation. However, this is a long-term response and is not an answer to present contract disputes. Deflection to automation ignores the influence of communities on present and future work.

Now that labor is as mobile as ever, communities should commit to quality jobs with livable wages at various skill levels if they are interested in growing communities for the long-term. Job training programs should focus on problem-solving, spatial reasoning, design, coding, trades, and machine programming rather than repeatable tasks.

Involve young people and workers in decision making

Communities interested in recruiting young people or workers should engage those groups locally. No matter the community, knowledge exists internally. A board made up of just managers will lack critical insights into the concerns and demands of workers.

Perspectives on labor differ tremendously by generation, so engaging only convenient collaborators would be detrimental. Millennials have already shown they will not be ‘company men/women’ like their grandparents. Now that younger millennials and older Gen Z workers are in the workforce, other patterns may develop.

Recently I heard a complaint that “young people don’t want to work more than 8 hours a day!” Neither did workers last century, which is how we ended up with the 40-hour workweek and overtime. As the new workforce favors work/life balance, opportunities for professional development, and other priorities - the old model may not serve as a blueprint for success and worker retention.

Ultimately, communities interested in the future of work should not discount current workforce trends. As seen throughout history, large scale labor movements have long-term impacts, especially following major economic disruptions. Community leaders and organizations need not be neutral in the midst of labor disputes, but instead champion quality jobs and economic longevity.

For more reading on the worker’s movement:


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