This country is ripe for a conversation about how to adjust our economy to the realities of the digital revolution, but that conversation is barely happening. Just as all workers (not just farmer laborers) were affected by the transition from the Agricultural to Industrial economies, all workers today—whether they are corporate lawyers, fast food workers, or taxi drivers—are facing technological change that impacts (or threatens to utterly destroy) their work.
Nearly 200 years ago, the labor movement developed the demand for an 8-hour work day as part of their response to the Industrial Revolution. In the intervening 200 years, many things have changed—but for the most part, our economic demands haven’t.
Why are we still holding full-time, permanent work as the gold standard of our movement?
We continue to tie our economic demands to particular employers, because that’s how unions have been institutionally successful—by bargaining with specific employers, and then collecting dues from the specific employees of those employers. Employers, in the Industrial Age, were willing to have that relationship because it got them what they wanted—labor peace in specific industries, and for the most part, in specific geographies.
Employers don’t seem to want that anymore.
What they want is to take advantages of the productivity gains that technology produces—more part-time work, more contract labor, more flexible arrangements.
Happily, I think we can also conclude that most workers don’t oppose productivity gains—they like technology that makes their jobs easier, and safer, and faster—but they don’t want to be left out of the wealth that increased productivity creates. Similarly, as we have more and more struggles around “work/life balance” we can conclude that less time at work will not be unwelcome to most of the workforce—as long as it is not accompanied by a huge net loss in income.
We need to build a labor movement that plays to the things employers want—but also makes them see that, without a social safety net that supports a flexible workforce, they will have no labor peace. The union of the future won’t be the one that figures out how to bargain with Facebook over their use of contract labor—it will be the one that figures out how to represent people to fight for benefits outside the workplace, as well as inside. In fact, it might not be a union at all.
We don’t, however, only need a new model of worker organization—we need a new way of talking about work, in our movement. We’ve spent a lot of time promoting the value that all work has dignity, and is deserving of respect. We say things like, “no one who works full-time should live in poverty.” We write articles & opinion pieces, extolling the times when we had something close to full employment as being “the best of times.”
When we make moral statements that only promote the value of work, we lock ourselves into a rhetoric, by extension, that only workers have value—and that makes it hard for us to reframe the demand for full-time work into one for a full-time livelihood, regardless of the number of hours spent at work.
It will take a big leap, in the labor movement, from saying “no one who works full-time should live in poverty,” to “no one should live in poverty.” From saying, “we need full employment” to saying “we need a full livelihood.” But if we want to dream big—if we really believe that technology is transforming work into a wholly different thing, the way that it did during the Industrial Revolution—we need to take that big leap.
Progressives in general—and worker activists in particular—should join the fight for a universal basic income.
Right now, the 1% are the people who are gaining most from the huge increases in productivity that we’ve seen over the past two decades. They are reaping enormous profits, while shedding jobs, destroying communities and disrupting our economy. We need a movement that demands that all of us deserve the benefits of productivity increases—and understands that those benefits may not come in the form of full employment, but in part-time leisure.
(Note—if you’re interested in learning more about universal basic income, here are a group of articles that have helped to shape my thinking about it: http://bitly.com/bundles/katisipp/f)