SPEAKER: The following is a presentation of the ILR school at Cornell university. ILR, advancing the world of work.
SHANNON GLEESON: Thank you all for logging on to join our discussion today on inequality and worker rights. My name is Shannon Gleeson, and I'm an associate professor of labor relations law and history here at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations. I want to start by defining the topic for today, inequality. It's a term we hear all the time in the news, but I want to hone in on the focus for our discussion today.
Broadly speaking, sociologists define inequality as differential access to status and power, which results in an uneven distribution of resources that impact our day-to-day well-being. We hear about this all the time in the news as a growing wage gap, and the other aspects such as wealth and differential access to political and civic influence.
Now, this unevenness breaks down into socially salient categories which in the United States include race, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status, and other categories of marginalized groups. But for workers, inequality can mean differential access to both opportunities, such as higher education and job mobility, and also differential rewards for human capital. In other words, not everyone has the same returns on their degrees and labor market experience, and discrimination remains prevalent, despite many of the legal gains that we have attained.
So by all measures, inequality has grown, and is essential part of the widening gap in the declining ability of workers to exert their voice on the job through collective bargaining. And that's what we're going to discuss today.
LARA SKINNER: Hi. Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Lara Skinner. I'm the associate director of the Worker Institute at Cornell. The Worker Institute is the newest institute at the ILR school, founded to advance workers' rights and collective representation to address the crisis of inequality, which means that we're particularly interested in the topic of today's webcast. And it is the major focus of many of our research, training, and education activities.
As Shannon explained, inequality is at epic proportions today in the U.S. Many say that its levels rival those of the era of the Great Depression. And this means that millions of people are struggling to survive, meet basic needs, live a decent life, even while they're working full time. So in this webcast, we're going to focus on the link between workers' rights and collective representation and inequality. We're also going to look at how inequality and growing inequality is impacting workers, and then what workers are doing to take collective action to address inequality.
This webcast will draw attention to four major themes. One is the major role that worker rights and collective representation have played historically in addressing inequality. And we'll look particularly at the post World War II period. We'll also look at some of the limitations of the labor relations pact that was forged in the New Deal and with the National Labor Relations Act of the 1930s.
And then we'll fast forward to talk about the modern day crisis of inequality, and how it relates to the major changes in employment relations that we're seeing, the unraveling or the dismantling of the collective bargaining system that we've seen, and then as a result the major decline in union membership that we've seen since the 1970s. And then we'll end by exploring new ways of asserting worker rights and collective representation in this new economy. And there we're going to look at new groups that are dedicated to building worker voice and power in this economy, and we're also going to look at the ways that traditional unions are devising creative strategies to organize precarious and increasingly precarious workers in this new economy.
So the two campaigns that we're going to look at are one, the caring across generations campaign, and that's the link between the need to provide affordable high quality care and the need to provide a high road, good jobs, and good working conditions for domestic workers and caregivers. And then the second one we'll look at is the fight for 15. It's a campaign for a fight for $15 an hour, as well as a union. This is now an international movement of low-wage workers, and it had major victories in the last couple weeks in New York and California. So we'll talk about those more, and we have guests from both of those campaigns.
So to kick off today's discussion, we want to start with a video clip. This video clip draws on experts from the ILR school, as well as alumni of the ILR school, leaders of unions, workers' organizations, and in the worker rights field. And they'll talk about this link between worker rights and collective representation and inequality. And we'll start with Dr. Lois Gray, who will speak about the landscape of industrial and labor relations at the time of the founding of the ILR school. And then we'll shift to a number of experts who attended the Worker Institute's Advancing Worker Rights Conference in 2015, when we were marking the anniversary, the 80th anniversary, of the National Labor Relations Act.
LOIS GRAY: Well, there was a long history of labor struggles trying to get recognition without having legal protection before the NLRB, which resulted in actual massacres of people, like in the coal mines in Colorado. And workers who tried to assert their voice and to get better working conditions were usually fired or worse.
And so it wasn't until the National Labor Relations Act was passed that there was any legal protection for workers to have some equality, to be able to speak up on the job and try and to work with other workers to bring about changes in the workplace. After the act was passed, unions blossomed and grew in membership.
And World War II actually reinforced their position because the employers were constrained during the war of taking any action against unions. And we had wage and price controls during that period of time. And so unions became very strong. So it was right at the end of the war in '45 when employers decided to push back. Many employers took the lead in trying to push back and contain the power of unions. Unions, trying to protect themselves, resulted in a tremendous period of conflict.
ILEEN DEVAULT: The passage of the NLRA was late enough in FDR's term that there was time for lobbying and discussion of what the act was going to include. Some southern senators and congressmen argued that their servants, who were all African American, should not be included in the act. Southern California agribusiness argued very hard that farm workers should not be included in the act. And so they were not included in the act.
And frankly, I think no one at the time in government imagined that public employees would ever be included in any sort of collective bargaining. So they were not included in the act. In this way, the National Labor Relations Act was really built on a model of factory production and manufacturing. Those were the people they were aiming to address, and those were the people who were included in the act. And if you didn't fall into that category, you had no rights under the National Labor Relations Act.
KATE GRIFFITH: When people think about the goals of the National Labor Relations Act, they think about the facilitation of collective bargaining and promoting industrial peace. But what can get forgotten is that another main purpose of the act was to address inequality of power between individual employees and employers. And so part of that is promoting collective bargaining to try to offset that inequality.
But another aspect that often gets forgotten is that the National Labor Relations Act protects employees when they engage collectively, or when two employees or more are talking about their working conditions, trying to improve their working conditions. And the act protects them from employer interference and retaliation in those circumstances. So these days, on social media, if two co-workers are talking about their working conditions, that is an area that's broadly protected by labor law. Few people know about it, but it's protected from employer interference and retaliation.
So while there are a lot of challenges to labor law today-- the expansion of the low-wage workforce. In some sectors, it's sometimes hard to figure out which business entities are employers and have responsibility as employers. The exclusions are important. Domestic workers and farm workers were excluded from national protections of organizing, so those are important. But let's not forget that the act does broadly protect a lot of areas and is written very broadly such that it can cover new forms of experimentation in worker organizing, and also some of the challenges of our post-industrial economy.
MARK GASTON PEARCE: My concern has been for a while that the story, the rich story of labor management relationships, is all part of the American history. And people don't know it. Folks are tuned out. Folks have never been really introduced sufficiently. Well, the NLRB is the refs and the umps. You know, we're there in a game that is constantly changing. We're applying an 80-year-old regulation to an evolving work environment all the time. But that's what we're asked to do.
We remain relevant because we are always being confronted with situations within the workplace that people have never faced before. We have to make the call as to who is an employee, who's an employer, what does it mean to be a joint employer. If the player is on the field, is a college student, is that person an employee or a student? The person in the workplace, does that person have to be in the workplace, in a brick and mortar setting? Or are they somewhere else in a cyber community?
All of that is new stuff because of the ever change in technological advancements that go on. Who makes that call? It's us. We're going to continue to do it. We have to. It's an act that has been designed and designed in a way where people's work rights are there and need to be addressed. And for us to be able to serve the public, we have to be attuned to the changing workforce.
LYNN RHINEHART: We're at a moment where, for the first time in really decades, public attention is focused on the issue of income inequality and flat wages. What you have right now is a very broad and diverse labor movement that's comprised of traditional unions, as well as new worker organizations like worker centers and other worker advocacy groups who have combined to make this new diverse, energetic, new, broad labor movement.
I'm at the AFL-CIO, and within our organization we've been trying really hard to reach out to and bring young workers into the movement in a bigger way, workers of color into the movement in a bigger way. And what we're finding is that working people are excited about joining an organization that will fight for them.
BARBARA YOUNG: There are challenges to organizing domestic workers because domestic workers are one of the excluded groups from the National Labor Relations Act, which was based on a factory setting and not on individual workers separately for different employers. Today, domestic workers are only one person to a family or two persons to a family. So we had to try innovative ways to represent these workers because these workers are not a part of the mainstream labor unions. Although we are partnering with the AFL-CIO and 1199 home care workers because of a whole segment of our workers now are into doing home care work.
SARA HOROWITZ: We're really starting to think about, what are the new ways to organize workers. At the same time, very much respecting all the work that's come before and that we can learn so much from it. For different workers, the NLRA wasn't a possibility, in that we actually had to come up with interesting and creative new ways. But at the same time, again, really recognizing that the NLRA really works for very many millions of people, and that it's this wide strategy that enables just so much to be built.
LYNN RHINEHART: I think it's been about 10 years since the AFL-CIO actually started a formal partnership with worker center networks across the United States. And it really formalized our what had been up to that point a more informal working relationship with worker centers. But it really represented taking our relationship to a new level.
And since that time, we've really I've done a lot of work with different worker centers around the country on organizing campaigns, on campaigns to raise workers' living standards, on campaigns to fight wage theft. And actually, we've partnered with a couple of foundations to create an entity called the Lift Fund that gives grants to worker center union partnerships that are trying to advance the cause of workers' rights in communities around the country.
LARA SKINNER: All right. So that video really highlights a number of the challenging issues and exciting opportunities that the labor movement is facing today. At the Worker Institute, we like to say that this is a moment of grave parallels and great opportunities for the labor movement. Before we move into talking a little bit more about that post World War II period and how it relates to inequality, I just want to remind our viewers that it's important to have only one browser open. If you have more than one open, that you may be getting an echo in the sound. So
As we think about the modern day crisis of inequality, I want to pick up on some of the comments of Dr. Lois Gray. And if we think about what we do about this modern crisis of inequality, it's important to reflect back on the historical lessons we can draw on to better understand our situation today. When we do, it becomes clear that inequality is not inevitable. It's not the result of some sort of natural law.
Inequality intensifies or diminishes based on the choices of policy makers. So during the era of the Great Depression, unemployment was high, low-wage work was prevalent. Inequality, power, wealth, and income were all extremely high. And as Dr. Gray mentioned, workers were organizing. Workers began taking collective action to combat those poor conditions that they were facing in a rapidly industrializing U.S. economy.
And in response, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, FDR, along with unions and other progressive forces, put together a New Deal platform to address inequality. And that platform included the establishment of the National Labor Relations Act, the NLRA, that gave workers the right to organize and bargain collectively with their employers. And this was intended to bring about labor peace. It was intended to allow workers to bargain for a greater share of the wealth and prosperity that was being produced in the country, and ultimately to decrease inequality.
So in this way, it's important to remember that the ILR school's link to studying and addressing inequality runs deep. Because the ILR school was founded with a public service mission to do education, training, and education around this emerging field of industrial and labor relations. And this was really sparked by the creation of the NLRA and the desire to address growing inequality.
So it's well documented that the establishment of the system of collective bargaining and workers' rights was very successful at addressing inequality, reducing inequality coming out of this Great Depression era. And with this protection to organize and bargain collectively with employers, by 1950, one in three workers was a union member, and nearly 40% of the private sector workforce was unionized.
From 1947 to 1973, inequality was reversed, and income growth matched income growth and productivity. So we had both productivity and compensation, meeting competition more than doubling during this time period. In other words, unions, through their ability to collectively bargain over wages and benefits, they ensured that the benefits of increased prosperity was broadly shared. And in 1890, the top 1% of Americans owned 51% of all wealth, and then by 1979, they owned only 20% of all wealth. And this is according to Emmanuel Saez's research at UC Berkeley.
So unions' high density and strength in this post World War II period really helped to raise the wages of union workers, but also of nonunion U.S. workers. It's important to remember that. And it also lowered the ceiling by moderating the compensation for executives. And while unions were a countervailing force in the workplace, it's also important to remember that they were a countervailing force in city, state, and national politics.
So besides doubling median compensation during this period, unions helped secure other political and social policy to address inequality. And this includes unemployment insurance, minimum wage, social security, progressive tax rates, and a bunch of other policies that helped reduce inequality. So that's really the success story of how collective bargaining and a framework of worker rights and accompanying social policy during this post-war period addressed inequality and helps reduce inequality.
It's also important to note, as my Worker Institute colleagues Dr. Ileen Devault and Dr. Kate Griffith indicated in the video clip, that there were limitations to the system. Some categories of workers were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, namely farm workers and domestic workers. Unions were also resistant and slow to integrate women and people of color.
And then union power was also concentrated in certain sectors and regions and not others, which limit their ability to bargain with employers and improve conditions in some economic sectors. So since 1970, probably many of you are aware that union membership intensity has declined steadily. And with it, union bargaining power. Today, only a little more than 6% of workers in the private sector are unionized.
The impact of this decline on inequality and working conditions has been profound. Once again, we see an ever greater concentration of wealth at the top, and except for the 10% wealthiest in the US, many are characterizing us as an entire nation of downwardly mobile workers. Some estimates show that the decline in unionization accounted for one third of the increase in inequality that we saw in the 1980s and 1990s. And that's from the Economic Policy Institute. We saw labor productivity double since 1973, but the median wage only grew by 4%.
So the cause of this steady decline in union membership intensity is multi-faceted and probably familiar to many of our viewers today. It's related to intensifying attempts by employers and corporations to erode worker rights and collective bargaining systems. This is happening in the workplace. It's happening in courts, and it's also happening through public policy.
It started with the Taft Hartley Act, outlawing secondary labor actions and undermining union security and right to work states. But it continues today with Republican governors and legislators who are repealing or weakening public sector workers' ability to collective bargain, and also eroding other worker protections. As I said before, many workers were excluded under the original NLRA when it was first established. But since then, it's been amended. It's been reinterpreted. And it's further restricted the workers who are covered by it, making it harder and harder for workers to organize, join unions, and strike.
We've also had a dramatic transformation in employment relations. We have an economy that now relies heavily on part time, contingent, and precarious workers. We also have an economy that relies heavily on independent contractors, which begs the question, who's the employer that we would bargain with?
So we now have an economy where the vast majority of workers are not covered under this original collective bargaining law. And for the workers who are covered under than NLRA, the system struggles to protect workers who are organizing from employer retaliation, making organizing new workers extremely difficult. We also saw a number of other trends that weakened the labor movement and union density. The manufacturing base was eroded by globalization and technological change. We had a number of free trade deals passed over the last few decades. We're continuing to negotiate free trade deals that have exerted downward pressure on wages, on worker rights, and on other regulations.
So in short, it's clear that the decline of union representation and collective bargaining in the U.S. Is directly connected to the increase in inequality that we've seen since the 1970s. And now I'm going to hand it over to Shannon to talk more about this modern crisis of inequality and its consequences.
SHANNON GLEESON: Thank you, Lara. I think it's important to note that while worker inequality is not an exclusively novel phenomenon, as many of our historian colleagues will remind us, the modern era does have some important characteristics. As you've heard already, the fruits of the decades of labor organizing in this country are clear. For sure, as Professor Kate Griffith mentioned, over the last century U.S. Workers have come to enjoy this expanding array of workplace protections. This includes periodic rises in the minimum wage.
And in fact, we see that several states and cities have begun to outpace the stagnant federal protections. It's also the place that workplace safety standards cover more workers than ever today, and our modern ability to track things like occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities has helped to inform some very important changes. And, of course, owing to the long struggles waged by civil rights and feminist leaders, civil rights activists and feminist leaders, employers can no longer at least legally fire workers solely on the basis of their race, gender, or religious preference, among other categories. In fact, the federal Department of Labor alone enforces about 180 federal laws covering 10 million employers and 125 million workers. This is expensive.
However, despite this expanding enforcement bureaucracy and many high profile victories, there's nonetheless been a rise in polarized and precarious employment system over the last four decades. These quote, unquote "bad jobs," according to sociologist Arne Kalleberg, are characterized not only by low pay, but also few benefits and high levels of workplace violations. And in fact, many of these jobs also have little effective government oversight, and as we already have heard, are really unionized. And also, workers in these positions have unpredictable schedules and offer little upward mobility or chances for growth.
Now, it's also important to mention that globalization has fueled, very importantly, the precarious position of U.S. workers. And it's also the fact that even with these strong laws, relative to where they were in the past, we have a whole category of workers, what law scholar Ruben Garcia refers to as marginal workers, who face particular challenges in realizing their rights under labor and employment law. And this includes women, racial and sexual minorities, and the 5.4% of the workforce that is undocumented.
The lack of a comprehensive immigration policy and the 400,000 undocumented immigrants who are removed every year contributes to growing worker exploitation. We also have heard about the proliferation of these nonstandard worker arrangements, including subcontracted and temporary positions. And in fact, low wage workers in particular have limited power without the presence of a collective bargaining contract to contest their workplace conditions.
And this includes wages, but also things like autonomy on the shop floor, scheduling, and other benefits. And so the consequences of all these inequalities are serious for both workers and their families, especially in the context of rising housing costs, especially in booming urban centers, such as the San Francisco Bay area and New York. Also, we need to be aware of the lack of access to social benefits, including affordable health care, regardless of some of the important recent reforms.
And as we're going to hear in the next segment, the lack of access to public provisions, such as strong support systems for reproductive labor, mean that supporting families has become even more difficult for all involved, including for those largely female and immigrant workers who provide much of the child and elder care in our country. So we're going to hear now from KC Wagner, who is co-chair of the Worker Institute equity work initiative, as well Sarita Gupta, who's the executive director of Jobs with Justice and the co-director of Carrying Across Generations campaign, to hear about the struggle that these domestic workers are facing.
KC WAGNER: States' domestic workers' bill of rights became effective, and it was landmark in that it recognized domestic workers as workers, and afforded them substantial labor protections. And it was really significant that New York state was the first state in the nation to do so. And it was landmark legislation that amended three kinds of laws, New York state labor law, New York state human rights law, and New York state compensation laws. And individuals who were considered domestic workers are in the following three categories. Nannies, elder caregivers, and house cleaners and other domestic jobs that are done in the home.
SARITA GUPTA: The home care workforce, it's comprised of predominantly women, mostly women of color, immigrant women, who are in some of the lowest paid jobs in our economy today. Yet they're part of one of the fastest growing work forces. So the workforce itself is paid unfathomably low wages.
I mean, on average, a home care worker makes about $16,000 a year. Yet they're doing this incredible work of caring for our loved ones. So most of the care-- I mean, it's sort of the contradictions of our economy, that here are people who care for our loved ones, yet they don't make enough money. They don't have access to benefits to support themselves or their families.
KC WAGNER: The home as a workplace has become recognized as a legitimate place of employment. And there are employers who want to do the right thing. And there are many employer associations that we've done work with, Hand in Hand in particular, that have partnered with us in this very important equation, in this new framing of a labor relations relationship where individual domestic workers are employed in individual people's homes who are now defined as employers.
SARITA GUPTA: What we've learned through this campaign is historically, there's been a way in which the rights of workers have been pitted against the needs of families. The issue of affordability versus workers' rights. And what Caring Across Generations has attempted to do, and what we are doing, is to say actually, we're going to do away with that paradigm and actually create and operate from a place of abundancy and understand that it's about choices that our policymakers are making, that our nation is making, about the future of care in our country. And that in fact, we can create a long-term care system that both meets the needs of the growing workforce and meets the needs of families and individuals.
There's a way in which we have allowed ourselves to believe that it's OK for someone else to make the decisions for working people. And that's part of what we say about the care sector, is no. Care workers and families who need supports need to be the ones who are shaping what the system looks like moving forward. And I would draw that out across the economy.
I think workers today have a really important voice, and they have to find the different ways in which the vehicles by which they can make their voices heard. And so I think institutes like Cornell are really, really important to both create the space for there to be the learning, the exchanging of ideas, and the creativity to come up with solutions that we should all be pushing for.
SHANNON GLEESON: So we've seen an excellent example here of the types of organizing that workers are taking on to help define the terms of their own workplace conditions. And now we're going to hear a little bit more about the Fight for 15 Campaign. And also I encourage you to send in your questions, which we will tackle at the end of these segments.
KENDALL FELLS: When you look at the labor movement across the country, workers have, over the last 50 years or so, lost a dramatic amount of power with employers. So even if you look at a lot of unions and a lot of union contracts, they haven't been able to win the type of gains that people have won back in the '30s or back in the '40s. And a lot of the reasons is the right wing attacks on labor unions. So unionization's down to like 6.6% in the private sector.
So SEIU saw this as a huge problem. We had these fast food workers. And so when you look into the low wage worker industries in the country, they're the fastest growing industries. Home care, customer service jobs, fast food jobs. Those are the fastest growing jobs in he country. 64 million, about 46% of the workers in this country, make less than $15 an hour.
I mean, I think these workers are building a 21st century union, and I think the major difference between what they're building and the old school unions, every worker that's involved in the Fight for 15, they understand the premise, which is if I support the Fight for 15 and I want better for myself, I'm going to have to get to the streets. And not just as workers, but they're building coalitions in every city with religious leaders, labor unions, community residents, community organizations.
And so in any given city, we can get anywhere from 2,000 to 30,000 depending on the city folks out on the street around a single issue. And I think that that is a pillar of the Fight for 15 and what these workers have built in this country. And I think a huge reason why they've been able to capture the hearts and minds and move the country.
And I think that's where we're headed, to a labor movement that's a lot broader, that encompasses workers not because of the industry or because of where they work, but because the commonality is they're all low wage workers. That's the commonality, not they're hospital workers or they're nursing home workers. So I think you're going to see a movement that encompasses low wage workers because those jobs are growing so fast. These workers are getting paid the minimal amount in the country.
So they're making $7.25 or whatever their city or state minimum wage is. So what that really means is that they don't make enough money to just buy the food, the clothing, get transportation to work, just like the necessities that it takes just to get from Monday to Tuesday. They can't afford it. So a lot of them depend on state assistance. And a lot of them, frankly, just can't do it.
So you might have a single mother who's saying, I don't eat. I only eat on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to make sure that my kids can eat every day. So when she ends up going from $7.25 to $15, she's going to have more money. So let's imagine Joe the store owner in a community of folks who are unemployed and make low wages. They can't frequent that store that often.
Now when people in that community start making $15, guess what? They're going to go to that store more often. They're going to spend more money at that store. And guess what? Joe's probably going to have to get more staff because now he's having a lot more traffic in that store. And I think that's just a microcosm of what you're going to see in the economy. When someone who's making over a million dollars a year gets more money, typically they don't buy more things because they don't need anything. You can get anything you want when you're making a million dollars a year basically.
But when you're making $7.25 and you go to $15, more than double your rate, you're going to spend more money on socks and shoes and bookbags and milk and hamburger. And all of those dollars that go into the economy will not only stabilize the economy and bring the economy up, but it would also create more jobs in the economy because small business, and even big business, they're going to have to hire more employees because more people are spending more money at their stores.
So a huge misunderstanding about the Fight for 15 is that it's some campaign to raise federal, state, or city minimum wage. That is not what this campaign is about. These workers are taken on the second largest private employer in the world, McDonald's, and they're going to get McDonald's to put all their workers in an organization and pay all of the workers $15 an hour because McDonald's has the money to do it. A byproduct of this campaign has been Governor Cuomo, Rahm Emanuel, Seattle, SeaTac, San Francisco, all these other companies, politicians, et cetera, that's raising the minimum wage.
And these workers have realized through this campaign that A, politics affect their day-to-day life, and there's more than one path to $15 an hour, and they're going to exhaust every possibility. But this campaign is not about raising the minimum wage. It's about bringing the second largest private employer to the table because their economic footprint is so big, and they're creating a drive to the bottom around the globe. These workers are experiencing poverty on a level that most have never seen.
Until you see a single mother sleeping in her car in a park who's working 40, 50, 60 hours a week, then you won't really understand it. It's not that these people are lazy. Most of them-- Terrance Wise in Kansas City, Missouri was working 60 hours a week, and he still was homeless. And so I would just say that inequality, whether you're talking about racial inequality or income inequality or inequality on just a basic level, I think that the Fight for 15 has created a movement in this country with people who are flooding the streets. And what they're doing is they're shifting the debate, and they're moving the floor underneath politicians. And you're going to see more and more policy that's being developed that will be better for workers, and that will at least lessen the inequality that we see in this country on various levels.
LARA SKINNER: Thanks to Kendall Fells for those great comments on this exciting Fight for 15 campaign. I'm just going to provide a little bit broader context for this Fight for 15 campaign. We've been talking about growing inequality in the U.S. Not only does the U.S. have the greatest inequality of any developed country, the U.S. has more low wage workers-- that's workers who make less than 2/3 of the median wage-- than any other developed country. That's from the Center for Economic Policy Research.
And then according to the National Employment Law Project, 4 in 10 workers nationwide in the U.S. earn less than $15 an hour. So on the heels of Occupy Wall Street, which really put inequality and the crisis of inequality front and center in the U.S. public discourse the Fight for 15 emerged three years ago with a wave of strikes by fast food workers in New York City. And this campaign has received significant support from the Service Employees International Union, the SEIU, as part of traditional union's experimentation with new methods of building worker voice and power in this increasingly low wage precarious economy.
So now the Fight for 15 is an international movement on six different continents, where low wage workers-- not just fast food workers, retail workers, adjunct professors, airport workers, caregivers, home care workers, child care workers, and others-- are fighting for $15 an hour and a union. When this movement emerged, many people thought $15 an hour, that's crazy. That's twice what the current federal minimum wage is of $7.25 an hour. This is a pipe dream.
And then three weeks ago, they were handed their biggest victories to date when both California and New York passed minimum wage laws. And many people are calling this the greatest wage hike in U.S. history. Now, New York and California's legislation is going to cover-- it's going to provide major wage increases for 9 million workers in the U.S. And this is on top of a number of U.S. cities passing minimum wage hikes.
So as we look at the broader context of the passage of these new minimum wage laws around the country and these hikes, it's a major victory. It's also important to remember that it's not a panacea for reversing inequality or for the problem of eroding worker power. Without a union, workers could still be afraid to speak up in the workplace without a union to protect them from employer retaliation. We still have that issue.
And the $15 an hour minimum wage doesn't mean that workers won't still face wage theft, that they won't still face irregular work and hour scheduling issues, underemployment, other forms of discrimination in the workplace. But clearly this Fight for 15 has resonated deeply with the American public to address the crisis of inequality and make sure that people who are working full time are able to make ends meet, that they're able to enjoy a decent life.
So moving forward, it's really important to look at how this campaign can leverage its victories. How can it leverage its victories to organize these workers into unions. How can it leverage it to strengthen or revive existing labor organizations. And then, how does it help build a broader, more inclusive, more powerful movement for economic and social justice by building bridges with the climate justice movement, with Black Lives Matter, with the immigration justice movement, and other movements.
So now what we're going to do is, I'm going to turn it back over to Shannon, and we're going to zoom in on some work that we're doing through the ILR school to address the crisis of inequality.
SHANNON GLEESON: Thank you, Lara. It's my pleasure now to introduce Lou Jean Fleron, who is the co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good and the High Road Fellows program at our Buffalo extension office. Lou Jean has been doing work in ILR for a very long time with community groups in Buffalo, and it's a site where many of our ILR students are getting their feet wet in the community and also bringing the ILR expertise to work in conjunction with our community partners through PPG. So I give you Lou Jean.
The High Road program is a program for Cornell students. It started only with ILR students, and they come and are placed with the Partnership for the Public Good, which is a think and do tank based in Buffalo with over 200 community organizations who are working towards more sustainable and equitable economic development. And they work Monday through Thursdays with those organizations on specific grassroots economic development projects. And every Friday we bring them together, and they explore the city so that they can learn all about Buffalo, its assets, its problems, and become a part of really the change that is the exciting change that's going on in the city today.
This research project actually was born out of a request by labor unions, civil rights organizations, and community activists who are really concerned with poverty and inequality. And we conducted a rigorous study that compares employment by race, by industry, by occupation, so that we would have a benchmark to know whether or not the new development in Buffalo is making a difference about in inequality. And the students helped conduct that research. It'll be used-- really, it's knowledge for the public good. We will use it to create the solutions that are suggested by the report. Targeted hiring, raising the minimum wage, changes in employment practices to increase affirmative hiring, working with the mayor's opportunity pledge to bring about change in inequality in Buffalo.
And to really recreate the Buffalo of its glory days in a way, where the idea was that if you had a job, you could live a middle class life. And to combat the problems of inequality that are not just in Buffalo, but they're nationwide. To do it right on the ground.
So we are very excited in Buffalo now because we have a new Cornell in Buffalo complex that brings ILR school, Cornell cooperative extension, engaged Cornell, into one building in the downtown of Buffalo, where we will continue to work on the economy of the region, and where ILR has been doing that for 70 years, to build an equitable economy there.
SHANNON GLEESON: Thank you, Lou Jean. As I mentioned, High Road program here at the ILR school in Buffalo is a great example of the broad-based work that the world of work is involved in. So it's not just the trade union movement, but also the important work of alternative forms of worker organizing, worker centers, socially responsible businesses, and government policy advocacy that we see our students working with.
One of your questions focused on the importance of other issues beyond minimum wage. We've heard a lot about increasing the minimum wage with recent improvements in the state of California and in New York. But you asked, what else should and could workers be focusing on? And I think workers and especially unions are focusing on a broad array of issues.
It's a myth that unions are only focused on their members. In fact, we've seen many of the important social policy gains throughout history come as a result of the work of unions. And certainly within the workplace, there's issues that go beyond the minimum wage, including things like occupational safety, protection from discrimination across a range of bases, and of course, as I mentioned, immigration.
But it's also important to note that there is many policies beyond the workplace that unions have advocated in support of including child care provisions, general social welfare policies that address poverty and other forms of social inequality, and then also social justice issues around LGBT right, racial justice, and immigration. All of these are worker issues. And then of course, thinking of ourselves as a workforce that is tied to global workers, workers across the globe, has also been an important focus of unions. So we'll go back to your questions. Please continue to send them in, and we'll address as many as we can in the limited time we have remaining.
LARA SKINNER: Great. So Shannon, we've got a bunch of questions about, what is the impact of the $15 an hour going to be on businesses? Is it going to cause people to lose their jobs? And so I think that's one that we should talk a little bit more. It's also been in the news a lot. And I think Kendall mentioned this, Kendall Fells in his clip that we just watched, that a lot of the studies have shown that what happens when we raise the minimum wage-- and this is a significant increase. It's gradated here in the US, here in New York, as well as in California and other places.
But it's a significant wage hike. And it's going to be putting money back in the pockets of average Americans, who then are going out and spending that money at their local grocery stores, on dance classes, going to restaurants, and various things. And so that in itself will spur economic growth, and hopefully help to grow the economy in a way that more workers can be employed and helps out with economic growth. And then there's also the point that we have a lot of underemployment in this country.
We talked before about so much of the economy being based on part time contingent work. And so in some ways, if this can help, this minimum wage hike can help get rid of some of those precarious positions and spur businesses to employ workers in full time capacity, that's going to be OK. Particularly if then the money's going back in the pockets of workers and can be spent in ways that helps out businesses and spurs economic growth.
We also know that the average wage of workers compared to CEOs, that gap has increased greatly since the 1970s. Someone wrote in a question and said, the average CEO is making more than 200 times the average worker. And that's much more significant than it used to be. So we also know that there's room in this economy for more of the share of prosperity and wealth to be going to workers.
SHANNON GLEESON: One of you asked about how to find out more about the work that's happening in Buffalo, and I encourage you to visit our website at the Worker institute here at the ILR school, where we actually have information about a range of initiatives here, including in Rochester, as well as in New York City. You might also Google the Partnership for the Public Good, where you'll find out more work about that organization, which works in conjunction with our ILR office there.
One of the questions we received, Lara, asks, why do we think that labor unions are losing their members? Certainly you talked on the role of right to work laws, and we also see that there is increased power for employers to engage in union busting. How could we address this more generally in terms of understanding why unions have reduced in power over time?
LARA SKINNER: Yeah. I mean, I think as we said before, there's a whole host of reasons the National Labor Relations Act and that system of collective bargaining is clearly not as effective as it was before. And that's why we're seeing the emergence of many different forms of worker organizing, new forms of worker organizing, worker centers and worker organizations. And frankly, like I said before, it's a moment of grave peril in the sense that we see union membership continue in this steady decline.
But it's also a moment of great opportunity. We know we need to think about, what are the different ways that we build worker power and worker voice in this economy? And we're challenged right now with so much of the work being in part time contingent precarious work that's not covered under our traditional collective bargaining law. We also take some responsibility in the labor movement ourselves.
In that post World War II period, it was a really sweet period. Economic growth was booming. Union membership and density was growing. And we really got focused on wages and benefits. And so now I think we're seeing that scope of unions work, as Shannon said earlier, we're seeing some unions broaden that scope in the same way that SEIU is focusing on this Fight for 15 now. What are the broader ways that we lift up the working class and workers in this country? And not just through the negotiations at the bargaining table.
SHANNON GLEESON: One of you also asked the question about the role of immigration status in the phenomenon that we were talking today about regarding growing inequality. And you know, it's long been thought that undocumented workers, for example, are unorganizable. But I think that the history of the last two decades of labor organizing has showed that, in fact, undocumented workers have been a key part of revitalizing many sectors in the labor movement.
And the AFL-CIO, which has had a story passed around immigration, has become one of the staunchest advocates. But this is, of course, not meant that the federal policies that we have in place that shape the lives of undocumented workers are not important. So to answer your question specifically, the 2002 Hoffman Plastics decision under the Supreme Court in the context of the National Labor Relations Act creates a two-tier citizenship program in that undocumented workers don't have access to the same remedies for collective bargaining as do other workers.
So whereas they're eligible as employees to engage in collective bargaining and in organizing, when push comes to shove, they are vulnerable. And it's also important that even beyond the workplace, we have a array of programs promulgated by the federal government to make sure that we are reaching 400,000 undocumented worker deportations a year. And that broader federal context is shaping the experience of undocumented workers beyond simply the union organizing context.
And so I would argue that until we address the impact of our federal policies on immigration and the stalemate that we see in Congress, we're not going to be able to entirely address workplace inequality. And so although we think of these as being separated policy arenas, workers go home to families, often live in mixed family contexts. And even though we have seen some important gains, including the 2012 deferred action for childhood arrival program that President Obama enacted, it's not the case that this is without contention.
In fact, just this last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on his 2014 policy. So I think that around undocumented immigration, there are certainly some important openings and examples where workers are doing a lot to contribute to the labor movement, as we've seen both with Fight for 15 and Carry Across Generations. But it's also the case that we need to be doing work to ensure broader justice for all workers, regardless of immigration status.
LARA SKINNER: Great. I see one other question came in here. Someone from Canada said, there's a big push for a basic income guarantee. It doesn't replace a decent wage, but I'm wondering what your thoughts are on this. And I think that's an important point to lift up. The social safety net in the U.S. is so weak compared to many other places, although getting weaker in many other countries, including Europe.
And so some people have talked about the Fight for 15 in this context. How does it compare to past eras? And I think certainly there was a point in that post World War II era where some unions, Walter Reuther and the UAW, were actually talking about how can workers, the government, and employers be at the same table negotiating around the terms of capital. And we have, like I said earlier, moved far from that.
And most of our negotiations in that post World War II period in a sense have really focused on just negotiations at the bargaining table. But I think that is a limitation, when we think about the $15 an hour. It's still not a real negotiation over the control of capital. But I think what we're seeing is this amazing movement building work happening in the US, whether we're talking about the immigration justice movement, low wage workers, students, the Occupy Wall Street movement that happened. More and more ability for these movements to connect and link up and think about what a broader movement for economic and social justice looks like.
SHANNON GLEESON: One of you asked for references to any studies on the economic impact of the minimum wage hikes. And I encourage you to take a look at the Berkeley Labor Center, which is in a lot of the research looking at local wage hikes, for example in California, but also across the country. So take a look at that.
One more question. One of you asked what we thought about the basic income guarantee that we see being proposed in other parts of the world, including in Canada. And I would say that that is a important movement that is attempting to disaggregate basic social provisions from the employment relationship. So it's a demar-- challenge really market principles around access to basic well being. Do you want to talk a little bit about how that relates to the work that workers have been doing in the union movement?
LARA SKINNER: Yeah, no. I completely agree. I mean, I think there is this broader focus. How do we move beyond just the negotiations at the bargaining table for wages and benefits? How do we bring these broader benefits to the working class? Like I said before, I think the basic income is important because it really does start to talk about the control of capital in this economy, which is a conversation I think ultimately we need to have.
SHANNON GLEESON: Right. Another view asked about, how do we think about the flight of capital and the role of globalization in a lot of these discussions? Certainly, especially here in upstate New York, we've heard a lot about the potential impact of the rising minimum wage on dairy producers, for example. While at the same time, we see this multi-tiered system that says that somehow low wage workers up here should be entitled to less than 15.
And so I think that there's a tension inherent there between what it takes to live a decent life. And there's a lot of misconceptions about who's working these low wage jobs. Sometimes we think of them as being only transitional jobs for teens and other individuals who might have dual income households. But in fact, we see that these are people who rely on these incomes as their primary source of support.
Of course, this is happening at the same time that you have strong market competition, including with global markets of production. And so I don't think that we're arguing that these are not real pressures that employers are facing, but also I think that beyond thinking about the role of workers, we need to think about the role of government oversight in shaping the competition that these employers are being subject to. Can you talk a little bit about these kind of industries where global competition becomes very salient? We had one example with the UA auto workers, but there's many others as well, especially in New York City.
LARA SKINNER: Yeah. I mean, I think the main thing that comes to mind is the incredible effort that many unions in the U.S. have put into trying to negotiate or stop the Trans Pacific Partnership. It's the sort of latest free trade agreement that the U.S. is bargaining around. But you know, this comes after the North American Free Trade Agreement, where we saw massive job loss in the U.S. and a number of manufacturing sectors.
And then since then, a number of other free trade agreements that have been established. And I think there's been a real riff in the labor movement around, are we trying to negotiate stronger terms in these free trade agreements? And this really speaks to the connection between the labor movement and the environmental movement too. Because the environmental movement has been grappling with this too, with the downward pressure that these agreements put on both environmental regulation and worker and labor regulation.
And so there's been a real tension between trying to assert stronger standards in these agreements, or just oppose them completely. But yeah, I mean, the impact of companies being able to move to areas where there's less regulation and lower wages has been huge. But again, I think speaks to the need for major movement building and this experimentation with how we regain the power and economy that we had once.
SHANNON GLEESON: We have a question here about the role of mediation in labor. And I would encourage you to take a look at some of the work here at the Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution, which has done a lot of work on the role of dispute resolution. And I would say that mediation has taken many forms at the workplace, but increasingly we see mandatory arbitration as being a big part of agreements that even low wage workers are being asked to sign.
And in fact, even in the labor and employment law arena, you see a move towards mediation as a way to settle disputes. And so I would say that mediation has grown as a tool, but not always necessarily in favor of the workers who are seeking added benefits. But that is an important area of work, which our Scheinman Institute has done some research on. You want to take another question?
Someone asks about Uber and the gig economy. Let's see here. I'll say a bit about the gig economy. I think right now the big questions in the legal arena are whether or not we need other categories of workers. So the big fight right now is around whether or not workers are independent contractors, or if they fit into the employment relationship. And I think that's going to be one of the standing debates moving forward, is whether or not we need a third category, and whether or not that will erode or open up new opportunities for worker power.
LARA SKINNER: And I would just say that one of the things that we're doing within the Worker Institute right now that's quite relevant to the questions that you all are sending to us, one is we're doing a study of the misclassification of workers as independent contractors in New York state. So stay tuned for that study. That will be coming out soon.
And we're also looking at developing policy strategies to deal with the irregular hours and scheduling issues that many workers are facing. So you probably heard about workers coming in to service or retail sector jobs, and employers saying, oh, it's a rainy day. There's not going to be as much business. Never mind. You're going to go home.
So instead of working that 30 or 35 or 40 hours a week that you expected, you only end up working 12 or 15 or 20. So we're looking at, what are the policy strategies to push back on those irregular hours and scheduling issues. We're also looking at the day laborers in the New York City region. So we're currently undertaking a census of day laborers in the New York City region, and have even been looking at the prevalence of women day laborers in the New York economy.
A couple of other things that I'll mention, just while we're talking about the Worker Institute work that's relevant to these discussions, we have an initiative on climate. It's called Labor and Leading on Climate. We're currently developing a climate jobs program for New York state, where we're linking job creation and economic development to tackling the climate crisis, the need to drastically reduce emissions.
We also are updating a study that we had done back a few years on the arts and entertainment workforce in New York state. So that study will be released soon. It's an update. And then also looking at, what are the new ways that workers can form worker voice and power in the arts and entertainment economy? As that being one example of an economy that's just changing so rapidly.
SHANNON GLEESON: I think that's a great place to end. I apologize to all of you who you sent in questions, and we weren't able to address them. I hope you continue the discussion, and you go to our website at the Worker Institute to learn more, and also the ILR school to learn about the various resources we have there. So thanks for joining us. We're going to leave you with some words from Tefere Gebre, who's the executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. And we look forward to seeing you in future webcasts. Thank you.
TEFERE GEBRE: We need to proudly say, we created the middle class. We go away, the middle class goes away. When the middle class goes away, our democracy goes away. Because you cannot have a true democracy without having a thriving middle class. And that has got to be really our message, our big message.
Now, I'm not going to go out there and say, I'm going to have the formula for corporate America to understand what's good for them. But in order for them to sell their goods, there's got to be Americans who can afford their goods. In all their days, corporate America actually realized that, understood that, from Henry Ford down. They actually realized that a thriving middle class meant a thriving business community.
We have been somehow distracted from that by quarterly profit reportings. CEOs are trained not to look down the road for the long haul, for the health of the corporation. They are held accountable for what happens to their stock by the end of this quarter. And that's what they focus on. And that's dangerous, not only for workers. That's dangerous for the country. That's dangerous for the business community. And when we all understand that, we all can thrive.
SPEAKER: This has been a production of the ILR school at Cornell University.
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The crisis of inequality is arguably one of the greatest social and economic issues facing the United States today. In this webcast, representatives of The Worker Institute at Cornell examine the ways in which worker rights and collective representation impact inequality and explore innovative solutions developed by the labor movement to solve this growing crisis.
Presenters Lara Skinner and Shannon Gleeson address the role that industrial and labor relations has historically had in reducing inequality and how changes in the country's collective bargaining system can be linked to the extreme levels of inequality we see today. They then present new ways in which low-wage workers are organizing to address inequality and look at two specific examples: Caring Across Generations, a campaign that works to expand access to in-home care while creating living wage jobs for care workers; and Fight for 15, a fast food worker-led movement to raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Additional perspectives by: Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice and the co-director of Caring Across Generations; Kendall Fells, SEIU national coordinator and president of Fast Food Forward; and Lou Jean Fleron, emeritus extension faculty (Cornell ILR) and director of the High Road program in Buffalo.