Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
At a time when progressives can find many reasons to be gloomy, Sarita Gupta, Stephen Lerner, and Joseph McCartin (GL&M) have put forward an inspiring and profoundly hopeful account of the future of workers and of organized labor.
An animating theme running through the episodes of successful worker organizing they recount is pursuit of the “common good”—as opposed to worker interests more narrowly and traditionally conceived. It is a natural and welcome trend. Workers are also consumers, taxpayers, tenants, parents, and members of the community; they experience not only abusive working conditions but also fraud, corruption, poor services, and environmental depredations (perpetrated not just by their own employers). When workers agitate around grievances and goals that extend beyond their own terms and conditions of employment, they can form alliances and target employer vulnerabilities neglected by conventional labor activism. And they can energize workers themselves by appealing to multiple facets of their identities, interests, and aspirations. This trend, if it is that, would put a different public face on organized labor and help to amplify workers’ voices in seeking a more just economic order.
It is no accident that workers, in particular, have been able to lead these campaigns for common goals. Workers have forms of leverage—dare we call it power?—that other affected constituencies do not. And they are often more willing and able to aggregate that power—to organize themselves and engage in collective action—because of the solidarity and mutual self-interest that arises out of the shared experience of work.
Workers’ most distinctive source of leverage is on vivid display in the recent wave of strikes. Labor is an essential factor of production, whether of education or of automobiles, and its withdrawal can interrupt production at great cost to employers. That is why strikes and the threat of strikes have been the linchpin of workers’ bargaining power throughout much of labor history. By the same token, however, strikes can put workers at odds with community members who need what workers produce, especially in the case of public services such as education, transportation, or health care. When workers strike not just for themselves but for community interests—and not just for higher pay but for better services, as in recent teacher strikes—they turn this potential vulnerability into a strength.
Fortunately, strikes—difficult and risky as they are—are not the only way for workers to wield power. Knowledge is also power, especially against organizations that live and die by their brands and reputations (or, in the case of public officials, by their electability). Workers are often privy to information about employers’ conduct—and misconduct—that bears on crucial community interests. On this point, GL&M invoke union campaigns in the banking industry that helped to expose fraudulent and predatory practices in Wells Fargo and elsewhere. Those campaigns, they write, “show how bank workers can help regulate their industry from below, exposing and stopping banks from cheating consumers and engaging in practices that threaten the broader health of the economy.”
Links between worker organizing and whistleblowing highlight two aspects of workers’ knowledge about employer conduct that are underappreciated and potentially in tension: their knowledge as a form of power in their own struggles with employers, on the one hand, and as a valuable resource in enforcing public regulatory restraints on corporate conduct, on the other.
Whistleblowing is no substitute for collective bargaining, of course, yet GL&M show that it can feature in a larger strategy of organizing for the common good, and of building community alliances and bringing reputational pressure to bear on firms and public entities to exact pro-worker and pro-consumer concessions. But workers’ use of insider information as leverage presents risks as well as opportunities, both of which can be better appreciated in light of contemporary regulatory theory.
Leading regulatory theorists have long advocated “tripartite” forms of regulation. In its iconic form, elaborated persuasively by John Braithwaite and other exponents of “responsive regulation,” tripartite regulation features government regulators, regulated entities and, crucially, nongovernmental “public interest groups” that represent the beneficiaries of regulation.
The role of third parties in that triangular constellation can be illustrated by unions’ role in enforcing labor standards: unions aggregate the knowledge and interests of affected workers while maintaining an independent external base from which to pressure both regulated firms and their public regulators. Thus unions—or their counterpart organizations in other regulatory arenas—can guard against “regulatory capture,” or the overly cozy relations that can take hold in the repeat interactions between regulators and the regulated.
But clearly workers and unions can play an important role in enforcing non-workplace laws, given their strategic location inside regulated entities. Nearly all whistleblowers and prospective whistleblowers are current or former employees. If they manage to overcome fear of reprisals and subtler pressures toward silence, as collective representation might help them to do, employees can help to monitor compliance with environmental, financial, and consumer safety laws as well as labor laws.
GL&M’s analysis of bargaining for the common good suggests a variant on tripartism with a slightly different constellation of actors—firms, worker organizations, and other community groups—that might similarly help to promote transparency and monitor compliance with public obligations. Official regulators are not direct participants in this alternative triangular scheme, since it is a product of bottom-up organizing as opposed to regulatory design. Instead, there are two (or more) non-governmental organizations whose constituencies’ interests are implicated in different ways and by different regulatory or normative frameworks.
To be sure, there are risks in workers’ conscious exploitation of knowledge about their employers’ operations as a source of power. But the alternative triangular constellation of actors in the grassroots alliances that GL&M describe, and their converging and diverging interests, might serve to counter those risks. That requires some explaining.
Workers have always had access to damaging, non-public information about their employers. Most opt to remain silent, perhaps out of fear of employer reprisals, or perhaps out of loyalty. Or they might misuse the power that lies in their inside knowledge to secure concessions for themselves. They might be coopted into silence, or into siding with their employers against the public. Something like that might have occurred in the run-up to the VW emissions scandal, in which some of the most empowered worker representatives in the world appear to have been willing to overlook VW’s fraud against environmental regulators in the United States and Europe.
Good regulatory design, and tripartism in particular, can help to counter these risks. Involving regulators guards against collusion between firms and their workers much as the involvement of unions or public interest groups helps guard against “regulatory capture.” And worker representation can help to counter fear of reprisals.
The grassroots alliances suggested by GL&M are different, but they might similarly work to counter the temptation of workers to either suppress or misuse damaging information about firms in pursuit of their own interests. Actual alliances with grassroots community groups may disrupt potential antisocial alliances between workers and firms. The latter may be cemented by fear, loyalty, or a quid pro quo. The former require the active cultivation of community solidarity that extends beyond the traditional boundaries of the labor movement. That means more than unions pursuing the common good as they see it; it means engaging actively with organizations fighting for consumer, environmental, and other community interests.
At its best, then, the new trend in worker organizing might contribute to better organizational citizenship as well as a more robust and broad-based labor movement. As workers continue to experiment with new forms of collective action, they should consider how to leverage the powerful knowledge at their fingertips for the common good.
Traditional worker organizing has failed on every level. But new approaches are finding success, pointing the way to a more just future.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
What we have achieved this year—and our plans for 2023.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.