Union 3.0: Worker Ownership and the Future of the Labor Movement

by Rob Witherell, 1worker1vote co-founder, originally posted on his Owning a Better Future blog.

The idea of the Union 3.0 concept is that the current Union models are no longer sufficient to organize many workers in today’s economy, that membership under those models have been on the decline for over 40 years, and that more broadly defined, there is an emerging labor movement outside of the current Union models that Unions need to connect to.

The purpose of Union 3.0 is not to replace the current models, but to supplement them and to reconnect and grow the labor movement through job creation, business development, and worker ownership.

The Industrial Revolution led to the development of craft-based Unions in the 1800s, such as guilds for printers, shoemakers, and glass blowers, which you could call Union version 1.0 and eventually become the foundation for the American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1886, and the modern building trades unions.

The late 1800s sees workers begin to organize en masse as the Industrial Revolution picks up steam, pun intended, and you find the Knights of Labor organizing all types of workers, not just by trade and craft, peaking in the 1880s before they are beaten back by the industrialists.  The International Workers of the World (IWW) forms in 1905, focused on taking direct action by organizing “unskilled” workers to strike for better pay and conditions, such as the Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, MA in 1912, but struggle after much of the IWW leadership was arrested in 1918 for espionage due to their opposition to U.S. involvement in WWI.  Although the peak years of the Knights of Labor and the IWW were relatively short lived, and their approaches to collective action were very different, these are the seeds for Union version 2.0.

The ingredients come together in 1935 in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA combines the collective bargaining process used by the AFL Unions with a formal organizing and recognition process that allows all workers the chance to join a Union, and requires employers to bargain in good faith. First proposed in 1928, eight AFL Unions form the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) in Pittsburgh in November 1935 to organize all industrial workers.  Major strikes in the late 1930s ultimately compel big employers to follow the new laws and the Union 2.0 model takes hold.

Admittedly, this is a huge simplification of labor history in the U.S. and maybe one could carve out 20 different models and eras, but we might also think of the AFL with its predecessors and descendants as versions 1.0 through 1.12 and the CIO with its predecessors and descendants as versions 2.0 through 2.16. Union 3.0 would be a significant update.

Union 2.0 (the NLRA and the CIO) doesn’t replace Union 1.0 (craft unions and the AFL), but overlaps and supplements it and allows the labor movement to further organize and grow. The emergence of one model from the other wasn’t sudden or even a clear divide, it happened over decades and overlapped each other even with the same Union. For example, the American Flint Glass Workers Union began in 1878 as a craft union, but eventually began organizing the “miscellaneous” workers at their employers, who ultimately outnumbered the original craft members.

It’s been over 65 years since Union membership in the US peaked at 35% in 1954 and 45 years since the membership decline began to accelerate in the mid-1970s. For the past 45 years, despite intermittent efforts to organize or to try new approaches, that trend line toward lower membership has continued and our ability to set standards for an industry, to makes gains through collective bargaining has continued to fade.

Collective bargaining in a world of 6% private sector membership means trying holding on to past gains and trying to bargain wage increases that cover the increased costs of health insurance and hopefully cover some of the increased cost-of-living.  How Americans earned a living in the 2019 economy looks a lot different than it did in 1959, and who knows what changes 2020 will ultimately create, but our model of Unionism hasn’t changed or progressed much with it.

We will still have Union 1.0 and Union 2.0, but to rebuild the labor movement and grow and strengthen Unions, we need a Union 3.0.  Union 3.0 is organizing workers outside of collective bargaining and through worker ownership.  Instead of reacting to an employer, Union 3.0 is about being proactive by creating jobs, helping good employers grow, helping members start their own businesses, giving members the tools to take an ownership stake in their employers, and becoming a force of economic development.

Union 3.0 means building on what 1worker1vote is doing with Union Co-ops, building on the work the Ohio Employee Ownership Center has been doing for decades, building on what Sara Horowitz did with the Freelancers Union, building on community wealth building and the anchor model that Gar Alperovitz developed, building on the work of Tom Croft and the Steel Valley Authority and their Strategic Early Warning Network and their staff of turnaround specialists, the work that the Solidarity Fund of Quebec is doing to invest in unionized and socially responsible businesses in Quebec, and so much more.

Just like the seeds of Union 2.0 were planted by the Knights of Labor and the IWW but never fully realized until employer-based collective bargaining became the purpose and the focus of organizing “unskilled” workers, the seeds of Union 3.0 have been planted by others for decades, but organized around a focus of economic development, job creation, and worker ownership, Union 3.0 becomes the next powerhouse for the labor movement.  Without the school, without the bank, without the R&D, without the deep cooperation between co-ops, Mondragon is just a business.  But with that focus on education, economic development, job creation, and expanding worker ownership, the Mondragon co-ops became a powerhouse for the region that it is today.