The Biden administration has been better than initially expected in a range of policy areas, including labor policy. In his supportive remarks on the union drive at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, fulfillment center, the president staked out a fairly bold position: “You should all remember the National Labor Relations Act didn’t just say that unions are allowed to exist; it said we should encourage unions.”
Shortly thereafter, the administration issued an executive order proclaiming that “the policy of the United States is to encourage worker organizing and collective bargaining and to promote equality of bargaining power between employers and employees.” To that end, the order established the Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, with vice president Kamala Harris as chair and labor secretary Marty Walsh as vice-chair. Since April, it has been holding a series of “listening sessions” with union leaders, academics, and nonprofits to gather ideas for growing unions and other worker organizations and to promote collective bargaining.
This is all a welcome departure from previous Democratic administrations going back to Jimmy Carter, all of which paid lip service (at best) to the labor movement while promoting corporate power at home and around the world. Despite the administration’s pro-union rhetoric, however, the task force’s recommendations are likely to be underwhelming.
For one thing, administration officials are telegraphing that the scope of their proposals, due to be released in late October, will be rather limited. As deputy labor secretary Seth Harris has put it, their “principal focus is on finding as long a list as possible of recommendations to the president for executive action using existing authority within existing programs, policies, and practices.” Task force staffers have reportedly told union leaders not to propose anything that goes beyond welcome but marginal improvements, like increasing workplace standards for federal contractors.
In fairness, the executive branch cannot simply decree a top-to-bottom overhaul of the nation’s labor laws. Doing so would require new legislation such as the PRO Act, which has garnered a surprising level of support, but not enough to surmount an inevitable Senate filibuster. Unfortunately, President Biden has so far refused to support abolishing or modifying the filibuster to promote unionization or protect voting rights.
As such, the administration’s bold pro-union rhetoric has been indirectly translated into macroeconomic management strategies and antitrust policy. By running the economy hot or combating “labor monopsony,” the thinking goes, government policy can raise wages or improve working conditions by boosting individual workers’ leverage in the labor market vis-à-vis employers.
Much can be said for these policy approaches. The administration is right to stoke a “high-pressure” economy and target the absurdity of noncompete clauses in places where they absolutely do not belong, like the restaurant industry. Given the pitiful rate of wage growth in this country, any measure that could potentially put upward pressure on wages and working conditions should be considered.
But these kinds of technocratic policy interventions tend to mistake symptoms for causes and prioritize competitive, market-based solutions instead of the only real source of power workers have: collective organization. Unfortunately, strong and stable working-class organizations have been the exception rather than the rule under capitalism, and the path to rebuilding that power today seems more uncertain than it has ever been.
Power Resources Theory
In the absence of organization, working people do not constitute a class but rather, in the words of Marx and Engels, “an incoherent mass scattered over the whole country, and broken up by their mutual competition.” When working-class disorganization prevails, there is little to stop employers and other business interests from bending government action toward their own demands. But when workers are organized on a meaningful scale, they have the potential to overcome fragmentation and advance their interests in the workplace and through politics.
The role of working-class organization in shaping government policy is the focus of the “power resources” school of welfare state theorists. Simply put, power resources theory holds that levels of social inequality and welfare state generosity are shaped primarily by the size and strength of labor unions and left-wing political parties. Its leading figure is Walter Korpi, the Swedish social scientist whose landmark 1983 study The Democratic Class Struggle continues to shape our understanding of class politics and social policy in rich capitalist democracies.
For all its theoretical and empirical sophistication, Korpi’s core argument is relatively simple: government policy supportive of working-class interests and economic democracy depends primarily on the distribution of “power resources” between the main classes and social groups. Taking twentieth-century Sweden as his main case, Korpi argues that the country’s high level of social equality and welfare provision resulted from its exceptional degree of unionization and left-wing political power.
By building a labor movement that organized nearly the entire labor force and a social-democratic party that governed continuously for decades, Swedish workers “greatly decreased their internal competition and have thereby reduced their disadvantage in power resources” relative to business interests. Reducing the scope of competition is key to boosting working-class power, something the liberal vogue for antitrust policy loses sight of.
Korpi identifies two main types of power resources in capitalist democracies. The first is control of capital and the means of production, and the second is “human capital” or labor power. Crucially, these two types of resources do not bestow equal levels of power on their individual owners. Ownership of capital tends to be scarce, concentrated, and easily convertible into various kinds of collective action.
By contrast, ownership of labor power is broadly distributed (everyone has it), dependent on demand by the owners of capital, and relatively difficult to convert into collective action. This human capital needs to be coordinated in order to become effective, which in turn requires the creation of organizations for collective action.
The relationship between owners of capital and owners of labor power is therefore one of inequality and subordination, which is the basis of the division of society into distinct and mutually antagonistic classes.
This fundamental power imbalance is why working people, wherever they have enjoyed a meaningful degree of political democracy, have organized themselves into trade unions and political parties. Though these are not the only sources of power available to workers, these have been the main expressions of working-class power in capitalist democracies.
As Korpi puts it, it is through unions and parties that the “individually small power resources of the wage-earners can be combined and their significance increased” in the political arena. These organizations can influence and have influenced the shape of income and wealth distribution, patterns of political conflict, and the form and function of key institutions like the state.
Working people operate at a fundamental disadvantage in power resources relative to business interests in all capitalist democracies. But the degree of this disadvantage has varied over time and between countries, and in certain times and places (like twentieth-century Sweden) workers have built organizations strong enough to challenge the foundations of capitalist power.
This is why, in Korpi’s view, the Left should not reject parliamentary democracy as the “best possible political shell for capitalism,” as Vladimir Lenin argued, but the means by which the “democratic class struggle” may be waged.
Other scholars have built on Korpi’s main arguments since the early 1980s. In Development and Crisis of the Welfare State, Evelyne Huber and John D. Stephens articulate what they call power constellations theory, which broadens the domestic scope to include state structures and state-society relations, and the international scope to consider the position of a particular country in the global economy and the system of interstate relations. They find that the growing political mobilization of women, the subordinate gender in nearly every society, contributed to welfare state expansion through increasing demands for social services.
These amendments to the original theory, however, do not detract from the core insight: the relative strength of the labor movement and its affiliated political parties has been the single most important factor shaping welfare state development over time and across countries.
Here in the United States, which has never had a nationwide social-democratic party aligned with a strong labor movement, the weakness of working-class organization is clearly reflected in the fragmentation and stinginess of our welfare state. Organized labor has been relatively strong, however, in a number of states in the Northeast and Midwest, and it’s clear that this has had a positive effect on patterns of inequality in those states.
In her comparative study of unionization and inequality in the states, political scientist Laura Bucci finds that higher levels of union density led to lower levels of inequality before and after government tax-and-transfer programs, independently of the policy liberalism of any given state. Of course, the state-level wave of attacks on organized labor that began in 2010 have made it that much harder for unions to defend working-class interests and reduce inequality. But the fact that they were able to meaningfully mitigate the growth of inequality even during the period of neoliberal retrenchment shows that rebuilding the labor movement needs to be a leading priority of any progressive political agenda.
The Biden administration’s pro-union stance suggests they understand this. But if it’s unwilling to act decisively by pushing to abolish or weaken the Senate filibuster, the rhetoric will ultimately amount to little.
The Road to Reorganization
It’s easy to argue for working-class reorganization. Actually reorganizing the working class in practice is among the hardest tasks a political movement could set for itself. The conventional wisdom on much of the socialist left holds that working-class reorganization will happen during the “next upsurge” of labor militancy, along the lines of the private-sector organizing wave of the 1930s or the public-sector organizing wave of the 1970s. I am less convinced of the “next upsurge” approach than I used to be.
For one thing, it seems quite possible that working-class reorganization today will not take place primarily through workplace organizing or strikes but through a broader repertoire of contention that includes labor militancy as well as various forms of political action.
We should not counterpose, for example, Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) PRO Act campaign, which has largely focused on pressuring elected officials to support the bill, to building toward strike action in workplaces. Just because mass-scale labor militancy tended to precede labor law reforms in the past does not mean that this sequence will necessarily happen again in the present or the future. Considering the dire state of the labor movement today, as well as the sobering fact that the last upsurge in the United States ended forty years ago, any potential path to rebuilding workers’ organizing capacity should be tried and tested.
In Brooklyn, DSA-backed state assembly member Phara Souffrant-Forrest’s office has been organizing working people around unemployment and housing issues, including the formation of new tenant unions in the district. As the socialist movement continues to rebuild itself through electoral politics, this kind of creative use of elected office can help to stimulate community and workplace organization where it didn’t exist before. The proletarian communities that underpinned working-class organizing in the mines, mills, and factories have largely disintegrated, and will not be reconstituted in today’s world. We have to grapple with the possibility that the road to working-class reorganization may no longer run primarily through the workplace. Working people need a healthy assist from public policy, which is why the fight to pass the PRO Act — and, in turn, to dismantle the filibuster — is so important.
Particulars aside, the ultimate goal remains building the capacity of working people to fight for their own interests, and, in doing so, to change the world. As the socialist and unionist A. Philip Randolph put it,
At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.