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The Re-emergence of Labor Signals Something About the Whole Workforce

From the Executive Editor


Our jumping-off point for focusing on labor in this issue was a simple observation shared by Ernest Marshall, CHRO of Eaton Corporation and a member of the People + Strategy editorial board: Union tactics and strategies are changing, but we’re still deploying—and teaching—the same labor relations playbooks. As the editorial board started digging into the topic, the truths underlying that observation became more provocative, not less.

The bulk of industrial relations strategies in use today emerged from hard-won experiences during labor’s peak victories and eventual stagnation from the ’70s to the early 1980s. The playbook has persisted so long in part because labor’s operating model, for many decades, seemed only to be evolving incrementally, or not at all. Its long, slow, structural decline as an institution made it seem as though, perhaps, unions had made their key contributions to the U.S. workforce in the 20th century and may have outlived their relevance.

Well, things change.

When Google faced small-scale organizing in one of its employee groups just before the pandemic, the question we asked in these pages was, “Are unions making a comeback?” The answer seemed to be “No.” When individual Starbucks stores and several Amazon warehouses went through multiple tug-of-wars over unionization during the pandemic, the answer still seemed to be, “Nothing of broader significance to see here.”

But then union organizers started lobbying for three board seats at Starbucks to be occupied by union-friendly directors. And then the UAW strikes last year ended up using a different playbook, including targeting the plants that produced the most profitable vehicles and surprise-striking on their most productive days of the week. And then UPS. And then Costco. And then …

Is this just a moment for unions to temporarily spike, or is this part of a larger trend? More broadly, is there something in this resurgence of unions that is indicative of a broader trend across the world of people who work—employees, contractors, part-timers? The answer, it appears, is “Yes.”

Against this backdrop of a broader re-evaluation of what work means to employees and employers, it is important that we entertain discussions about how to evolve our traditional playbooks—not just for industrial relations, but for healthier exchanges with workers overall."

 

A combination of factors, some cited in our interview with union leader David Rolf (see page 18), have hit all workers, not just typical union job categories or industries. Specifically, Rolf  cites a study that says between 1975 and 2018, the cumulative increase in income to the top 1% was about $50 trillion, and the bottom 90% of people lost net income relative to that 1975 baseline. He goes on to cite the implications in terms of price and wage compression. You may disagree with his conclusions about what that dataset means, but the data itself is cause for reflection.

Then in reasonably quick succession, the pandemic hit and race re-emerged as a defining—and separating—issue. Interest rates began climbing. Wars broke out. Tribalism and polarization took deeper root. In this environment, employers that took stands on issues—sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly—found themselves being labeled as “them” by their own employees, despite all the efforts by companies to care for their workers’ well-being during the tumultuous past few years.

The U.S. labor system, in contrast to the workers councils in much of Europe, is a fundamentally oppositional system. Collaboration isn’t easy, as it requires overcoming at least 120 years of muscle memory and distrust. But creating trust and open interactions in the workplace has been complicated by the same dynamics that complicate our politics—it’s often the loudest, rather than the most competent, representatives who get elected to union leadership. But we don’t get to choose the other team’s captain.

These enduring questions of trust and collaboration apply not just to unions, of course, but also to the entire working population. Against this backdrop of a broader re-evaluation of what work means to employees and employers, it is important that we entertain discussions about how to evolve our traditional playbooks—not just for industrial relations, but for healthier exchanges with workers overall. Thank you to the contributors and behind-the-scenes thinkers who helped us contextualize that problem set for this issue, and who suggested a few ways for exploring the next stage of the path.   

Kind regards,

David Reimer
Executive Editor, People + Strategy