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Ruth Milkman on the Future of Unions in Post-Pandemic America

What’s the future of labor in post-pandemic America? As once-ignored workers are increasingly hailed as frontline heroes, how can the attention translate into a stronger labor movement?

SLU’s Ruth Milkman shared thoughts in an article in The American Prospect, part of the publication’s symposium on “The Future of Labor”:

During the 40 years that I’ve been writing about labor issues, obituaries for the American union movement have been a perennial, punctuated by occasional moments of optimism, like the one inspired by the massive teachers strikes two years ago. Ten years earlier, in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown and Barack Obama’s election victory, many observers (myself included) made fools of ourselves with rosy predictions of imminent union resurgence. Instead, organized labor’s main political goal, the Employee Free Choice Act, went down to ignominious defeat in 2009, and union density soon resumed its relentless downward spiral.

While labor’s high hopes soured into bitter disappointment, a new generation of young activists launched Occupy Wall Street in 2011, firmly planting the issue of growing inequality on the nation’s political agenda. Occupy itself proved short-lived, but it did help to ignite the SEIU-sponsored Fight for $15, a campaign that boosted the pay of low-wage workers more than any effort in recent memory. Millennial-generation Occupy veterans also began to enter the labor movement, infusing it with new ideas and energy. Yet unions remained on the sidelines, battening down the hatches as their membership numbers continued to hemorrhage.

Entering the labor market during the 2008 crash and the ensuing Great Recession, many millennials were radicalized. But the present economic downturn is already far more severe, recalling the 1930s in the massive scale of the unemployment and business closings (and there are more to come). The crisis is compared daily to the Great Depression; the metaphor of war is equally commonplace.

Could it pave the way to a new union upsurge like the one that emerged in the New Deal era? Or will we instead see a reprise of the post-2008 “back to normalcy” Obama-Biden regime, if Trump is defeated in November?

For Milkman, such an upsurge will depend on organizing from the usual precincts — but not just there. It will rely as well on leadership from “the new generation of radical activists that emerged in the wake of the Great Recession.” Organizers who emerged out of Occupy, Black Lives Matter and beyond:

Their growing presence in the labor movement has attracted less attention, but they have begun to make their mark there, too, as key leaders in the 2018 teachers strikes as well as in recent unionization drives among journalists and adjunct faculty. They are also prominent in alt-labor groups and in the (non-union) organizing efforts of tech workers. While many older unionists are in the grips of a siege mentality fostered by decades of anti-union attacks, the new generation of activists brings a more optimistic outlook. That they are “digital natives” with legendary skills in organizing through social media only adds to their potential to become the leaders of any future labor upsurge, especially in the face of a pandemic that rules out more conventional forms of mobilization.

Read the full article here.

Photo by K. Kendall via flickr (cc-by)

Prof. Ruth Milkman Speaks About Workers on NPR

Amid the mounting coronavirus and economic crises, not all pressures are being felt equally. In particular, noted SLU professor Ruth Milkman on NPR’s Morning Edition, the most desperate workers are often those forced into positions that don’t offer paid sick leave at this precarious time:

RUTH MILKMAN: You can imagine that there’s an awful lot of people who have lost their normal livelihoods and are desperate to generate some income to support their families… The whole point of paid sick leave is to not force workers to have to choose between their livelihoods and their health or the health of their kids, but these workers are going to be put in that position.

Listen to Prof. Milkman on Morning Edition here.

Photo by Scott Lewis via flickr (cc-by)

Report: State of the Unions 2017

Organized labor has suffered sharp declines in recent years. So where does this leave the labor movement? And how do New York City and State compare to the nation as a whole?

Murphy Professors Ruth Milkman and Stephanie Luce have released a new report that addresses these questions. State of the Unions 2017: A Profile of Organized Labor in New York City, New York State and the United States looks at how union density has changed nationally and locally across demographics and industries over the past decades, and assesses the challenges and prospects that the labor movement faces now and in the coming years.

Explore this invaluable and accessible report here.

New Report: Despite National Trends, Unions Remain Strong in NYC

On the occasion of Labor Day this year, New York City received some welcome news courtesy of “The State of the Unions 2016,” the latest report from Murphy Professors Ruth Milkman and Stephanie Luce. Amid declining rates of unionization nationwide, the Big Apple remains strong, with over 25% of workers unionized.

According to the report, entitled “The State of the Unions,” NYC’s unionization rate has increased steadily over the past three years, from 21.5% in 2012 up to 25.5% last year.

From the New York Times:

About 70 percent of public-sector workers in the city and the state are union members, compared with just 19 percent of private-sector workers in the city and 13 percent in the rest of the state. Still, both of those rates are much higher than those of the nation, where less than 7 percent of private-sector workers — or about one in 15 — belong to unions.

All told, there are about 901,000 unionized workers living in New York City, slightly less than half the state’s total of 1.99 million. Only California has more — about 2.5 million in 2015, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that total amounted to only about one in six workers in California, compared with slightly less than one in four in New York State.

Read more at the NYTimes or see the full report here.

Photo by MTA Photos via flickr (CC-BY)

Ruth Milkman: 2016 President of ASA

ruth milkmanIn August 2015, Murphy Institute Prof. Ruth Milkman became President of the American Sociological Association (ASA). This month’s ASA footnotes features a profile of Prof. Milkman by Sarah Jaffe.

Jaffe begins by highlighting Milkman’s commitment to “doing research that speaks to the issues of the day,” explaining:

That mindset has led her to crisscross the country, from the East Coast to California and back again, to dig into historical archives to uncover the struggles of women workers during the Great Depression, to hang out in factories with autoworkers trying to save an industry being dismantled, to follow immigrant janitors as they disrupted an entire city, and to trace the beginnings of the Occupy Wall Street uprising. Continue reading Ruth Milkman: 2016 President of ASA