By: Emma Kiesling, Adam Graubart
Bold vs. Old Recap: Part 1 of 5
Last Thursday, we had the pleasure of participating in the Bold vs. Old conference at Union Market. The event, hosted by the Roosevelt Institute, Community Change, the Economic Security Project, and the Hewlett Foundation convened noteworthy leaders to discuss progressive policy proposals. During the course of the day, we listened to talks with Stacey Abrams, Mehrsa Baradaran, Senator Sherrod Brown, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, and many other progressive leaders and intellectuals. We also heard from two presidential hopefuls: Senator Cory Booker and Senator Kamala Harris. While the star-studded lineup proved exciting, we particularly enjoyed the policy-oriented focus of the event. Throughout the day, we learned that embracing the bold does not necessarily require rejecting the “old.” Rather, we need to replace our present cynicism with a restored faith in our public institutions. On topics ranging from postal banking to Medicare for All to the Green New Deal, we repeatedly reflected on how combining our resources and intellect presents the vast potential to establish a prosperous society for every American.
In a series of posts this week, we will review some of the most noteworthy policy lessons discussed during the conference. In doing so, we will reflect upon the momentous opportunities that exist in rehabilitating our trust in government’s capacity to serve our common welfare.
Part 1: Reviving Union Power
The day’s first panel included Mary Kay Henry of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Palak Shah of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), and Andrea Dehlendorf of the Organization United for Respect (OUR). Henry emphasized that recent labor wins for fast food workers and teachers across the nation were achieved through loopholes against the general grain of written law. To truly achieve labor rights in the United States, the panel agreed that we need to rewrite the rules so that workers have a voice on corporate boards, as well as the basic right to form unions in the first place.
Unionization is gaining popularity in our current moment, noted Dehlendorf, but it is largely unavailable among the majority of the private sector workers. For instance, Shah, speaking on behalf of domestic workers, noted that the industry faces a unique moment of dangerous market concentration—but also great opportunity. Here the term “monopsony” was introduced to describe sites like sitter.com, handy.com, and care.com, which are gaining larger shares of the labor market and, thereby, power over wages, working conditions, and unionization. As domestic care markets begin to concentrate, Shah argues, so too should workers set their own base rules to escape the “wild west” of the current market.
In the early twentieth century, America’s unions possessed a vast influence in the policy realm, including collaboration with the Roosevelt Administration to architect and pass the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which established the minimum wage, overtime pay, and the 40-hour work week. Starting with President Ronald Reagan’s interference with the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981, Americans have borne witness to a decline in union power accompanied with general wage stagnation and a concentration of wealth in the upper strata of our society. Reinvigorating collective bargaining rights under federal law—restoring the power of the unions as they existed before neoclassical economics dominated our policy space—represents the best pathway to ensuring that laborers have a voice for their individual and collective interests, especially as the content of our work continues to evolve.
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