What Will Unions Look Like in 25 Years?

July 9, 2015

This week, the Roosevelt Institute’s Next American Economy project is releasing a series of thought briefs in which experts examine how the economy will change over the next 25 years. Read the introduction here.

We can only envision the union of the future by imagining the experiences of the worker of the future. Who is she? How does she work? Who is her boss? And, most importantly, what does she need to have power over her own economic future?

The rapid growth of cloud technology platforms that enable new models for the distribution of work signals that the worker of the future will be performing a series of tasks instead of a single job. It’s possible that her “workplace” will not be a fixed geography but multiple points on a map, including a space in her own home. As even senior managers may be replaced by intelligent technology, she may never see her boss or receive performance feedback in person. And while she’ll certainly have coworkers, it will be difficult to gather around a water cooler and discuss the day’s events when they are scattered around the world, accessing their work one gig at a time.

As I worked on cobbling together a vision for the union of the future, I kept this worker in mind. And, as the co-founder of a digital platform dedicated to supporting people who are experimenting with new forms of workplace power, I get to see glimpses of this future every day: Self-sustaining Facebook groups run by workers through their OURWalmart affiliation; Starbucks baristas connecting globally through worker-led campaigns; Mechanical Turkers building plug-ins to rate task requesters and collaborating on campaigns through Dynamo; Etsy sellers supporting one another through teams; Uber drivers sharing information on Reddit. Workers are already making this future real by leveraging popular technology tools to connect with each other; it’s up to our existing institutions to create the infrastructure to make their efforts more effective, powerful, and lasting.

What I lay out in my thought brief are some ideas for how we might do just that. As the employee–employer relationship crumbles, we must accept that our policies and structures for building worker power require radical reform. Embracing platform technology by investing in its connective and collaborative potential for workers opens unprecedented opportunities for building global collective power. Thoughtfully reimagining how we enable resource-sharing to create new, worker-owned safety nets that offset precarity while recognizing the inherent power of our existing institutions can instill stability and support. And recognizing these new kinds of workers by advancing expansive, inclusive policy solutions rounds out the basic infrastructure for building worker power over the next 25 years.

A decade ago, I was part of a conversation with a homecare worker who had helped organize her union. In describing what this meant to her, she said, “the union is a thousand, a million dreams, waiting to become real.” It is not an NLRA-defined bargaining agreement or adherence to a rigid set of classifications. For workers, it is some amount of agency over their lives. It’s a way to connect, a way to shelter each other, and, ultimately, a way to ensure that our millions of dreams have the chance to become real.