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Debate: Should Workers Organize Workplaces or Industries?


Sectoral bargaining means looking for labor power not solely in individual workplaces but in entire industries. Compared with workers in other wealthy countries, few American workers are in unions, and they have lower standards of living, less employment security, and fewer organizing rights. Elsewhere in the world, sectoral bargaining has allowed labor movements to help more workers, more quickly, than by relying on the shop-by-shop organizing strategy common in the US. The labor movement here should look for inspiration to the African National Congress in South Africa, which legislated sectoral bargaining after smashing apartheid; the striking Amazon workers in Italy two years ago; the 2018 mass strikes against fascism in Argentina; and even its own history.

From 1935 to 1955, the CIO rooted its work in sectoral organizing—in contrast to the AFL’s craft unionism, which excluded most low-wage workers. The more radical CIO organized industries, which meant that each union could win higher wages for hundreds of thousands of auto, steel, and telecom workers in one go. Nearly 80 years ago, after a decade of fierce organizing, the United Auto Workers bargained on behalf of all auto workers. Typically, the union targeted one of the big three automakers: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. A labor win at one employer would almost immediately improve conditions across the industry, as the same contract was extended to the other firms’ workers. In the coal and steel industries, sectoral bargaining was more formal, with multiple employers bargaining at the same time. These efforts expanded the share of unionized workers in the private sector from about 13 percent in 1930 to more than 35 percent by 1955. But after that, industry-wide bargaining in the US declined, partly because of anti-union trade policies. Congress never codified sectoral bargaining, nor did it extend it to new enterprises, as happened in most other democracies. The result: Only 6 percent of workers in the private sector are in unions today.



Sectoral bargaining is a desirable goal, but prioritizing this fight puts the cart before the horse. The labor movement currently faces a far more urgent task: organizing unorganized workers into unions.

Increasing employees’ collective power on the ground is the most realistic path to bringing bosses from across an industry to the bargaining table. US labor leaders too often treat sectoral bargaining as a strategic alternative to the daunting work of organizing workers shop by shop. But hoping for a quick policy fix overlooks the fact that centralized negotiations in Europe largely arose as a response from employers hoping to tame powerful local unions and strike militancy. And once European labor movements found themselves on the retreat in the 1990s, centralized bargaining was often either scrapped or came to serve as a mechanism to impose austerity and deregulation.

Without a bedrock of worker associational power, sectoral bargaining is unlikely to get widely implemented—at least not in a manner favorable to working people.

Fortunately, we’re living in one of the ripest moments for workplace organizing in decades. Young, radicalized workers are overwhelmingly pro-union and eager to take on the billionaire class. Their ability to do so has been boosted by a tight labor market, the spread of digital technologies, and a new Biden-appointed National Labor Relations Board that is aiding unionization for the first time in decades.

Unfortunately, even last year’s string of high-profile unionization victories—from Starbucks to Amazon to media outlets to retail stores and beyond—has not yet proved sufficient to snap the leaders of most national unions out of their defensive posture. Instead, the AFL-CIO’s June 2022 convention set a far-from-ambitious goal: 1 million new members over the next 10 years. Achieving no more than this would result in a drop in union density, since the total workforce is set to grow at a faster pace than the AFL-CIO’s organizing goal.

Read entire article at The Nation