New Frontiers of Worker Power: Challenges and Opportunities in the Modern Economy

February 15, 2017

American workers are facing a lack of power that has reached crisis levels. In addition to the decades-long decline of unions, the expanded use of technology and outsourcing pose challenges from which contemporary labor law offers no shelter. This situation is poised to worsen in the near future, as Trump administration appointments to the Department of Labor, National Labor Relations Board, and Supreme Court stand ideologically opposed to even the most basic enforcement of worker protections and regulation. As all these factors combine to undermine workers, it’s important for progressives to remember that the modern economy is not inherently inhospitable to worker interests. Rather, the silencing of the American worker is a choice; forward-thinking reforms can bring about an era of renewed worker voice, both in the context of traditional unions and throughout the rest of the labor market.

Some have posited that the well-documented decline of unions since the late 1970s is the natural result of modernization that has shrink the manufacturing sector and increased reliance on flexible job descriptions, independent contractors, or outsourced service providers. This analysis implies that worker power is weakening primarily due to limitations of on-the-ground worker protections offered by the Wagner Act, which governs union representation. Although limitations in these protections must be addressed, we argue that union decline alone cannot explain the fall of worker standing. We take a broader definition of worker power, showing that the large and growing power disparity between workers and firms is rooted not just in the weakness of traditional labor law, but issues of market power and technology in the workplace as well.

We begin by describing the erosion of basic worker protections due to poor enforcement, and explain how this has set the stage for a broad array of hostile workplace practices. We then outline three topics—lacking pathways to organizing; data equity, algorithmic accountability, and information symmetry; and monopsony power—that must figure prominently into any discussion of worker power in the modern economy. We describe the challenges posed to labor and some potential policy treatments for each issue.