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Labor Day is a day off from work for some, but for many, many others it’s just another day working in retail, food service, agriculture, health care, and the so-called gig economy of freelancers. The labor movement in this country, which a decade ago seemed like it was gasping for breath, has found new life in advocating for the rights of workers who have so often been overlooked.
Labor unions, despite what you may have heard from the loudest voices in the room, have historically enjoyed steady support from the majority of Americans. That support hit its highs in the 1950s, but was somewhere within five points of 60% for much of the rest of the 20th century. Union support collapsed to a historic low of 48%, as measured by Gallup, in the tumultuous recession year of 2009, but has been steadily climbing back since. It now stands at 63%, which is right around where it was in the 1990s.
However, union membership is at an all-time low of somewhere around 11% of workers. Industries where unions had a lot of success, like manufacturing, have a lot fewer jobs in them now than they did in 1955. That is not a coincidence. Companies moved those jobs to countries with lower wages and weaker unions so they could make more money, and blamed the labor movement for “forcing” them to do so. Thus labor went into decline for decades.
But labor has seen a resurgence of late, especially in the service sector. The Stop & Shop strike that happened in the spring was a resounding success for the union, which enjoyed high public support. Stop & Shop stores became ghost towns as loyal customers took their business elsewhere, forcing the company to come to terms favorable to the workers.
Unions, driven by young people, are starting to capture the frustration so many people feel about the supposedly wonderful economy.
Workers, especially the young, are turning to second and third jobs in order to make ends meet. Forty-three percent of full-time employed workers have a “side hustle,” myself included, while 51% of part-time workers do.
The sort of side jobs people are getting are, more and more, in the gig economy. That includes freelancers of all kinds, from rideshare drivers to food delivery to writing and editing. According to a recent study, 15.8 million Americans work full-time in the gig economy. I am married to one of them. These jobs don’t come with benefits or steady income, for the most part, and thanks to fierce competition wages can be pretty low. Companies getting rich off of freelancers, like Uber, hardly ever pass the wealth on to their workers.
Life in the gig economy can be pretty good, and it opens up opportunities for income that people wouldn’t have had 10 years ago. But it’s precarious. It’s hard to earn a living wage or create any kind of savings, and hours can range from overwhelming to nonexistent.
That’s where the power of working together comes in. Workers for rideshare companies all around the world flexed their collective muscles back in May when they went on strike for one day, demanding better wages, benefits, and transparency. They not only forced Uber to settle arbitration demands, but they showed that drivers all across the globe could, in fact, work together to force companies to treat them better. It’s a start.
The big question, in my mind, is what happens to gig workers when the next economic downturn comes? What happens when people don’t have money for a ride, or don’t want to pay for delivery?
The next recession could swell the labor movement’s ranks — or break it forever.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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