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Organizing labor in an era of temporary work and the gig economy

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Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) hold a rally in support of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union at the Richard J. Daley Center plaza on February 26, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

The labor movement and unions have seen declining power for decades. Scott Olson/Getty Images

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Javier Morillo spent 14 years as president of Service Employees International Union Local 26 in Minnesota. The union represents janitors, security officers, airport workers, window washers and others in the property services industry. Morillo is now a fellow at the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers University. He’s spent a lot of time thinking about the economy and workforce after COVID-19, as well as changes labor needs to overcome.

“I think today the AFL-CIO and the labor movement, generally, is still organized along the lines of an economy that no longer exists,” Morillo said.

The challenge facing the labor movement today, and in the last decades, has been to adjust to an economy that doesn’t depend on industrial jobs, but temporary workers. This becomes more complicated when trying to organize workplaces.

“What we’re looking at is an economy that is increasingly made up of contingent workforces … people who are employed seasonally or part-time or work for subcontractors,” Morillo said. “Employers have figured out, through those mechanisms, ways of making it difficult to impossible for workers to organize right? How do you organize a temp agency?”

Morillo spoke with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio and the following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: The Supreme Court’s Janus case, 2018, lets workers not pay into the union, even if there’s a union deal from which the workers benefit. Anti-union people see this as a freedom not to join a union. OK, but beyond getting a different Supreme Court who might see things differently, how would you, from your perspective, start reimagining the workforce given, you know, I think there’s a new willingness to consider the unthinkable these days?

Javier Morillo: Well, one thing that happened as a result of Janus was that large unions, public sector unions that were impacted by that decision, like SEIU and AFSCME and teachers unions, really doubled down on internal organizing to resign memberships and put together internal structures so that, actually, the impact on the union, financially, has not been as heavy as everyone had feared at the beginning. I think that was a good sign for the labor movement. One of my mentors has always said that kind of the rule in U.S. labor law when it comes to organizing is that if it is effective for workers, it is eventually made illegal. And we have been fighting against the tide of decisions like Janus and others for decades. But the movement just needs to be creative and focus on organizing, organizing, organizing. And we can beat back that tide.

Brancaccio: Now you see a firm connection between widening inequality and the weakening of the union movement over the decades?

Morillo: Absolutely. I think it’s undeniable. I think you see that with the decline in union density, the percentage of workers, especially in the private sector, in the country that are unionized, that coincides exactly with deepening inequality in society. And I think that the rise of the U.S. middle class, which is a global phenomenon really, the first rise of it’s kind anywhere, that happened when union density was really high in the United States. And so I think it’s on us now, as we are at a point where inequality is as bad or worse than in 1929, we are ripe for a moment for workers to come together. Because the whole point of union is simply that we are stronger together than alone, that asking your boss for a raise one-on-one is a different thing than asking a boss with 4,000 of your coworkers. So that belief in collective power is I think something that is bubbling right now. Opinion polls are showing this, but you can feel it on the ground and there’s just a lot of activity happening and worker organizing because of the situation of inequality in society.

Brancaccio: So, from your perspective, harness the energy and get bargaining, but you’ve also thought about reinventing collective bargaining for this 21st century. In what ways?

Morillo: One of the principal discussions of the U.S. labor movement in the 20th century was having a movement that reflected the economy as it existed. That was, historically, the split of the AFL and the CIO, which eventually came back together. And that is what we are faced with, I think, today. The AFL-CIO, and the labor movement, generally, I think right now, is still organized along the lines of an economy that no longer exists. Whereas back then the discussion was between industrial union organizing and craft organizing, craft unions. Today, what we’re looking at is an economy that is increasingly made up of contingent workforces. And by that I mean, you know, people who are employed seasonally or part-time or work for subcontractors, temporary laborers, temp agencies, that sort of work. That is increasingly the defining characteristic of the workforce, right? Employers have figured out through those mechanisms, ways of making it difficult to impossible for workers to organize right. How do you organize as a temp agency?

And so the challenge facing the labor movement today and in the last decades has been to adjust to an economy that is no longer industrial, that is largely service sector. And I think that, right now, that’s the challenge for the labor movement, but also a lot of the opportunity and some of the best organizing work that is happening right now is not happening in traditional labor unions and under traditional collective bargaining, the rise of worker centers that don’t engage in collective bargaining, but do organize workers to improve standards in the workplace. Right now, I’d say that what the labor movement has to do is look to a future where traditional collective bargaining is one part of the broader worker movement. But just one part, because we have to figure out ways to organize in these contingent workforces. And that just requires different thinking and different kinds of contracts for different kinds of arrangements. So I think that’s the moment we are in. We have been in it for a while. And many people are rising to the challenge. And the labor movement, I think as a whole, has to sort of broaden its scope to be really a worker movement, where traditional labor is just one part of what we do.

Brancaccio: And around the bargaining table itself, that’s a position you found yourself at from time to time. You’ve talked about bringing the community into the bargaining table. Normally you think of, you know, the labor reps and the company.

Morillo: Well, I think one of the mistakes that labor unions have made in the past is that, you know, when you ask people who are not in unions, what they think of unions, even if they have a good opinion of them, they will often say things like, “Well, a union looks after for its own members.” I think that’s a mistake, both of substance and of message. The reason to bring the community into our bargaining is because our members are whole human beings who live in communities. The union that I led for 14 years is a union of low-wage workers, janitors, security officers and others, overwhelmingly people of color, overwhelmingly immigrant. And when our members won a raise, that money was brought in invested right back into the community because people, low-wage workers. when they win a raise, unlike the rich, they tend to spend it on their needs. So, to me, the question of bringing community in is just a reflection of union members are whole human beings. In addition, I think that when we’re in contract negotiations, bringing in issues of housing, bringing in issues of climate change in janitorial negotiations — like, the issue of climate change was something we brought because the issue of green cleaning, and day-shift cleaning, so that buildings didn’t have lights on at night. Those were things that we negotiated at the bargaining table that were important to our members, but important to the community as a whole as we all try to fight the big problem that we have of facing climate change.

Brancaccio: Now, there’ll be some employers who just see labor contracts as added cost, which then hurts consumers. But, you know, I’ve read from time to time, economists who’ve shown that more cooperative relationships between unions and companies can actually get improved results rather than each side seeing each other as sworn enemies or something.

Morillo: You know, it was always interesting to me. When we were in contract negotiations, it’s always a tense moment, right? Because you’re on different sides of a bargaining table and you disagree about things. But once you come to agreement, and once you have a contract, the union defends the union employer, because our competition at that point is our non-union employers who pay less and pay fewer fringe benefits. And we know that if they rise, if that non-union sector rises, that that ends up hurting us. And so I think that the conception that people have of labor, as always at odds with the employer, I think it’s actually much more complex. Labor unions are very adept at being intense at negotiations, and then you settle, and then you do what’s best for the company, because that’s what’s best for the employees. So yes, I do think that there are things that the union can do together with the employer, that it’s a win-win situation.

Brancaccio: The union movement is also up against globalization. I mean, if labor gets more expensive in the U.S., because of collective bargaining, that increases the odds that the job gets done overseas. That was less an issue with the Service Employees Union that you represented, because a lot of that stuff has to be done, right there in a building. But globalization is still one of the reasons, I think — people who study this call it union density — why union density has fallen in America over all these decades.

Morillo: So a couple things on that. One, I think that it speaks to the need for a worker movement in the United States to be international, because we can’t simply just say no to globalization, I think we need to view globalization as an opportunity. The janitors and security officers of Local 26, the union I led, were employed by companies that were multinational, that work in every other inhabited continent. We are interested in the condition of workers in other countries, not simply out of solidarity, but because we actually have a shared self-interest. They are our shared employers. That’s one part of it.

But I think this crisis today, the pandemic, has really brought home the way in which in this country we need to rethink the limits of how much we can outsource things, right? The problems we’re seeing with supply chains and people are now talking about bringing pharmaceuticals back to production in Puerto Rico. Because so much is done in China and the supply chain problems are becoming a matter of life and death. And so, I think we’re in a moment right now of rethinking everything when it comes to the economy and that’s a good thing. Employers and industry are rethinking everything, and I think the worker movement needs to rethink everything.

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