Skip to main content

More than A Trend: Hot Labor Summer

Labor organizing is a key component in building power and capital for workers in the U.S.

Authors: Melonie Tharpe, Director Portfolio Initiatives

These days, an orange cat turned worker-rights advocate named Jorts has become a rising star by advocating for labor organizing, building support for labor action, and calling out seemingly dangerous corporate policies across the country. Jorts is not alone. The #hotlaborsummer tag has been regularly trending on social media as labor organizers have seen significant wins at Amazon, Starbucks, REI, Chipotle, newsrooms, for sex workers, adult entertainment dancers, in nursing, and more.

For most Americans, working for someone else is a necessity. In the U.S. system, where employers decide an employee’s benefits and pay, we rely on consistent employment to grow individual wealth through wages and benefits—which comes with inherent instability and power dynamics. Want to grow wealth and power as an employee? You need leverage to demand fairer benefits and wages. Welcome to labor organizing. 

Labor organizing isn’t new. It has a long history in the U.S. and beyond. The long weekend some of us just enjoyed—Labor Day—is a direct product of the unions who fought for rights during industrialism. In fact, the earliest recorded strike dates back to 1768 when New York journeymen tailors protested a wage reduction. Since then, the story of organizing saw bloody battles, wins and rights for workers. Martin Luther King, Jr was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated. 

Labor organizing today is key to shifting power, choice and ownership. Within organizations—especially in the for-profit sector—an individual worker generally does not have the power to change organizational policy. However, when organized into a collective, individuals with the same message can force changes. Organized labor can demand fair processes for workers who are fired or accused of misconduct. They can also create a layer of protection between workers and management that can lessen instances of workplace harassment and abuse. Labor can even change how a company’s products are used. What’s more, labor organizations—and especially unions—play a major role in US politics and policy, with the power to change entrenched stances on major issues

Excitingly, labor organizing can shift capital as well. In addition to unions generally securing increases in benefits and pay, studies have found they also lower CEO pay. In a country where the gap between CEO and employee pay can be up to 670 to 1, that matters in reducing the wealth gap especially in a climate where white executives vastly outnumber BIPOC ones.

Recognizing labor organizing as a key part of building power and capital for the majority of workers in the U.S.—especially those in Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities—is key to long-term changes in the racial wealth gap. People need ways to earn higher wages, get better benefits, and have safety and respect in the workplace. While we build systemic change and imagine policy and structures that allow more ownership and better state support for basic needs, the workers of today and tomorrow need power now. 

As an intermediary, Common Future’s key approach is influencing the shift of capital and power to models that can change the economy. However, we recognize that labor organizing and labor power can shift the economy, sometimes quickly. We have started inviting labor groups to the table as we seek new economic models to invest in. 

As we explore a potential worker focused childcare project we have listened to the voices of groups like Community Labor United, a labor organization whose members want and need better childcare options and have opened a Service Employees International Union backed childcare center. In 2021 we were excited to support La Mujer Obrera through our Communities and Culture grant, an organization that organizes and builds capacity among low-wage women workers along the U.S./Mexican border, ensuring they can advocate for their rights. But we want to take this even further, and explore the ways in which unions can help us close the racial wealth gap—and restore power, choice, and agency to BIPOC workers.

We want to hear from more labor organizing voices in this space and hope they continue to show up in our work. Programs like our newly launched Policy Entrepreneurs Program, our upcoming accelerator, and ideas percolating on our Initiatives team can all benefit from organizing voices. Envisioning a new, equitable economy takes all of us—and that means labor organizations too.

Other Topics That May Interest You