The Urbanization of Trade Union Struggle and Strategy

By Ian Thomas MacDonald

This is an abridged excerpt from Ian Thomas MacDonald’s new book, Unions and the City.

Many in labor studies have come to see our cities and suburbs as great laboratories of labor renewal. The relevance of this perspective can be glimpsed in the importance of resisting the dismantling of public education to the fate of a teacher strike in Chicago, for instance, or in the equally surprising success of citywide minimum wage campaigns across the United States. But these inspiring moments only hint at organized labor’s daily engagement with the life of the city, which we have found to be broader, deeper, and more complex than is commonly recognized. If we are right to believe that the future of the labor movement is an urban one, union activists and staffers, urban policymakers, elected officials, and members of the public alike will require a fuller understanding of what impels unions to become involved in urban policy issues, what dilemmas structure the choices unions make, and what impact unions have on the lives of urban residents, beyond their members. 

No contribution to labor studies today can avoid beginning with the question of labor’s continued social relevance. Indeed, it may be more relevant to discuss the consequences of organized labor’s absence from our economy and politics than to search out the consequences of its activities. Most optimistically, labor movements in the United States and Canada might be described as being at an impasse. Spirited local struggles have blunted the worst attacks on labor standards while failing to inspire a broader fightback. Innovative union campaigns have succeeded in organizing workers in particular workplaces, but these are not generalized across labor markets. Attempts to fend off legislative assaults on labor rights fall short as often as they prevail. Union representation in the United States now sits close to what is likely a floor of 6.6 percent of private-sector employment and just over 11 percent when the public sector is factored in. The equivalent rates in Canada are 14 percent in the private sector and 27 percent overall, levels which have declined since their high point in the 1980s, and especially so in terms of private-sector employment. Still, unions represent 14.6 million workers in the United States and 4.5 million in Canada. It remains the case that unions continue to act in ways that shape the experience and practices of large numbers of working people and the industries in which they work, as well as the political communities in which they live. It is not now, and has never been, fashionable in the social sciences to recognize that unions have this importance.

There are a number of causes, both external and internal, to explain why labor has been so weakened. But the obsolescence of conflict is not one of them. It is rather the case that a great many of the social struggles we see today—and are sure to see more of in the future—do not express themselves primarily in the workplace. They are sparked by cuts to public services and the privatization of public education, racist policing and immigration policies, gentrification, precarious work lives and degraded labor markets, a rise in university fees, and crushing levels of consumer debt. These struggles express themselves in the public sphere, and they are typically initiated and led by young people and racialized and immigrant workers who find themselves excluded from stable, decently paid employment in the firms, industries, and occupations most likely to be associated with union representation. No one familiar with labor history would doubt that the fate of the labor movement is linked to struggles which, born of dispossession, are struggles of the working class. Geographers would add to this that organized labor and the new urban movements are now more likely to be struggling in the same places over the same issues.

Consider the economic location of unionized workers in the United States. A quick survey of U.S. union membership shows that the majority are located in branches of the economy at one or more remove from domestic industrial production, formerly the profit center of the U.S. economy. In the private sector, the highest union density rates are not in manufacturing (10 percent), but in transportation (20 percent), utilities (25 percent), and construction (14 percent)— industries in which workers “build the city where they trade.” Furthermore, the labor movement is overwhelmingly composed of members in service-sector occupations rather than materials extraction and processing. Education, health care, sales and office, transportation, and even private security occupations are all more important sources of union employment than production occupations. As of 2009, half of all union members were located in the public sector, with two- thirds working for local governments providing front-line services necessary for the reproduction of urban society. Without them, the cities which, we are told, are the engines of the new economy would not function. To characterize this as a “postindustrial” rather than an “urban” labor movement puts the emphasis on what labor used to produce and fails to identify what it is concretely that union members produce today.

One consequence of this shift in economic location is that labor unions remain, by a significant margin, the largest membership-based organizations in major North American cities, and often very powerful local political actors. Another is that unionized workers are likely to work in sectors that are regulated or operated by the city governments that find themselves the targets of urban social movements making claims for public services, employment standards, and civil rights. It is this geographical overlap that gives rise to the hope in labor studies that labor’s impasse might be broken by developing creative strategies that connect existing labor union organization and resources to the spark of urban social movements and the regulatory powers of local government.

Labor unions are organizations formed by workers to accomplish a common purpose. They were formed in the workplace where workers’ power is at its greatest potential extent. Existing labor laws in North America so constrain the right to use this power, however, that workers, as a collective, enjoy fewer rights in the workplace than they may claim as citizens of a democratic society. The reorganization of the firm and the degradation of labor markets have further weakened labor’s workplace capacities. The recognition that organized labor can no longer be successful when action is confined to the workplace encourages unions to pursue strategies that link workplace organization to extra-workplace relations where they may find additional sources of power and greater liberty of action. This more political form of labor action—the union member mobilized as a democratic citizen—opens up a variety of possible strategies.

In linking other spheres of social life to the workplace, unions transgress the boundaries that defined the postwar employment relations system and begin charting an arena of labor struggle and strategy that is specifically urban. In pursuing these strategies, unions are behaving in ways that have been championed by the “social unionism” strand in the labor renewal literature: they are extending their representative function both to nonunionized workers and to the many ways in which their members are not just workers but social actors with a plurality of needs and identities. At the same time, unions are negotiating how cities evolve and how they are governed and lived by their residents, including, of course, not only union members but also the growing ranks of unorganized and precarious workers. When unions challenge and negotiate urban change, they are intervening in the formation of a new urban working class.

This is an abridged excerpt from Ian Thomas MacDonald’s new book, Unions and the City. You can purchase the book here.

MacDonald is a former adjunct professor at the Murphy Institute and currently an Assistant Professor in the School of Industrial Relations at the University of Montreal.