A Labor Movement For The New Guilded Age

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Above Photo: From workersparadise.org

When Ronald Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987, he not only invoked the rising supremacy of the United States by demanding “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”, he ushered in a new era of individualism focused on the “freedom”(Bruner, 1989) that was libertarian in nature and encouraged the material success of the US economic model. This beginning of a new “Gilded Age” focused on the creation of individual wealth and individual prosperity. Roy H. Williams sees this moment as the zenith of the “Me Generation” (Williams, 2016), in which the relative strengths of individual achievement turn back on themselves. In this continuum between the “we” and the “me”, observers can understand the general debate over labor between the collective nature of the Republic and the desire for individualism.

The ensuing years after Reagan’s speech saw the wall and the entire Warsaw Pact nations with planned economies fall. The rise of capitalism on a global scale ushered in a new era of globalism through international agreements such as the North American Free Trade Act and creation of the World Trade Organization. Both major party leaders in the United States embraced free trade, which allowed corporations to move capital across international borders with few obstacles. The attack on organized labor under the Reagan administration became a flight from organized labor under the Clinton administration (see figure  ). Further modernization of industry and relaxing New Deal era regulations on finance and monopolies allowed networks such as Wal-Mart, and practices such as “just-in-time” production to further erode the labor ecosystem as the nation switched from an industrial to a service economy (Klein, 2000, 2007; Meyer, 2016). Union coverage in the United States dropped by 17% during the Clinton Administration compared to 25% during the Reagan era[1] (Hirsch & MacPherson, 2012). The neoliberal model of “flexible” capitalism, which allows capital to move quickly and help enhance just-in-time production, weakened the ability of the Wagner-model labor movement to hold corporations (often transnational) accountable or to meaningfully engage in negotiations (Meyer, 2016).

The reasons behind worker’s desire to unionize (Farber & Saks, 1980) have not changed. Job security, fair treatment and better wages and benefits remain core issues and over a million US workers join unions every year (Chaison, 2006) even while total union membership and coverage continues to decline. In addition to formal trade unions which have come under increasingly heavy regulation through amendment to the Wagner Act, workers and community organizers have begun to engage in non-traditional means to change working conditions through unofficial labor groups, social movements, and new mass organizations such as the Fight for $15, Chicago Jobs and Living Wage Campaign, and other grass roots organizations (Meyer, 2016).

This has led to a rediscovery non-business union models such as Mutual Gains Unionism (MGU) or Value-Added Unionism (VAU) and Social Movement Unionism (SMU). The MGU model found limited success as labor unions attempted to engage in partnerships with the employers of their members in which traditional bargaining over wages and benefits gives way to participating in the growth of the company to the benefit of workers overall, the most successful example being the Saturn automotive plant in Tennessee, a project of General Motors. SMU theorists urge the labor movement to reunite with non-labour organizations to make common cause in the defense of workers and all people who suffer under the dominant economic system. Recent attempts such as SEIU’s Jobs with Justice campaign for New York City Janitors and CWA’s efforts with living wage campaigns demonstrated the power of SMU with marginalized communities outside of the traditional “union zone” (Devinatz, 2008; Nissen, 2003). SMU helped propel the labor movement throughout the first third of the 20th century and helped create the environment that allowed business unionism to exist (Nissen, 2003).

A number of community organizers have created worker centers to press the rights of workers. These centers are “community-based and community led” (Fine, 2005) and evade the regulations of the NLRA. This allows workers and their allies to use community campaigns to press demands for better wages, working conditions, and local regulations that protect workers. The worker centers, as not-for profit organizations that are independent of a collective bargaining unit, have the ability to go where unions cannot. They can engage secondary boycotts, provide informational pickets to publicly shame employers, and even protect workers during and after wildcat strikes. (Duff, 2014; Eidelson, 2013). Further, the National Labor Relations Board under the Obama administration has included non-unionized workers in its purview. The NLRA has always covered all workers, but traditionally the NLRB has not considered cases brought by unrepresented workers (or the ability to bring a case has been too difficult).

These new movements look and act like the social movements of the late 1800’s: the 8 Hour Day, the rise of the NAACP, the push for regulation such as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and other efforts to bring the Robber Barons of the day to heel. While the traditional Wagner model labor unions may seem to be in retreat (and their numbers decrease daily), the modern technology of the social media, smartphones and encrypted messaging services along with the renewed interest in worker rights through Fair Trade abroad and Living Wages at home have created a powerful foundation for workers to engage employers as never before. The modern labor movement may seem fractured (and in many ways it is), but it has not devolved into a disorganized mess, but a mosaic of multiple organizational models. This has created a multi-model line of attack and defense for the modern worker that has brought new relevance to old organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World and their protracted fight against the Jimmy Johns sandwich franchise (Jamieson, 2016) and brought to life the worker co-operative model.

As Nissen (2003) argues, either model, MGU or SMU, can provide new potentialities for labour unions. The MGU model works best with an employer engaged to see the union as a partner. The SMU model connects the labor union to a larger social movement and can provide significant support to the union from outside. Both models, however, require a paradigm shift on the part of union leadership. In terms of the union-co-op model, a merger of the models into a Value-Added/Social Movement framework would work well within a worker-owned organization.


Bruner, M. S. (1989). Symbolic Uses of the Berlin Wall, 1961-1969. Communication Quarterly, 37(4), 319-328.

Chaison, G. (2006). Unions in America. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: SAGE Publications.

Devinatz, V. G. (2008). Social-Movement Unionism and U.S. Labor’s Uncertain Future. Journal of Collective Negotiations, 32(3), 203-213.

Duff, M. C. (2014). ALT-Labor, Secondary Boycotts, and Toward a Labor Organization Bargain. 63 Catholic University Law Review, Summer.

Eidelson, J. (2013). Alt-Labor. The American Prospect.

Farber, H. S., & Saks, D. H. (1980). Why Workers Want Unions: The Role of Relative Wages and Job Characteristics. Journal of Political Economy, 88(2), 349-369.

Fine, J. (2005). Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream. Retrieved from

Hirsch, B., & MacPherson, D. (2012). Index of Tables: Union Membership and Coverage. Retrieved from http://www.unionstats.com/

Jamieson, D. (2016). These Jimmy John’s Workers Were Fired Illegally. Five Years Later, They Might Get Their Jobs Back. Huffpost Business. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/jimmy-johns-union-fight_us_5707e5f4e4b0447a7dbc2d17

Klein, N. (2000). No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Canadian ed.). Toronto: Vintage Random House.

Klein, N. (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Meyer, R. (2016). Precarious Workers’ Movements and the Neoliberal State. Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, 19, 27-55.

Nissen, B. (2003). Alternative Strategic Directions for the U.S. Labor Movement. Labor Studies Journal, 28(1), 133-155. doi:10.1177/0160449X0302800107

Reagan, R. (1987). Address from the Brandenburg Gate (Berlin Wall) (June 12, 1987). Retrieved from http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/speech-3415

Williams, R. H. (2016). Solilquoy. Monday Morning Memo. Retrieved from http://www.mondaymorningmemo.com/newsletters/soliloquy/

[1] The Reagan Era includes 1981-1993 since his Vice President George H. W. Bush succeeded him and many of the policies remained in place. George W. Bush’s two-terms only saw union coverage drop by 8%.

  • Jo Hayward-haines

    Beautiful and well-documented analysis. Thank you!