The Labor Day holiday dates back to the early 20th century and was envisioned as a public celebration of “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community.
This year’s commemoration may seem strained, with social distancing and much uncertainty about the future of jobs and opportunity, but the situation is less dire than feared at the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Americans are resilient and are finding ways to cope. We should all take pride in that. It’s also possible the disruption will have some positive side effects, like shaking up the status quo regarding labor unions.
It is unlikely work life will revert to the way it was before the COVID-19 crisis. Many workers have learned to clock in from home — and found they prefer it. Big companies are rethinking large offices now that they know workers can do things remotely. Service-oriented businesses like restaurants have switched over to delivery as the primary means of reaching customers. City populations will thin if offices go empty, and the ancillary businesses that relied on the white-collar workers — like dry cleaners, delis and parking lots — will thin out, as well.
Parents who hadn’t considered home schooling have been forced to try it or other alternate-education models. Some parents will prefer the alternatives, meaning smaller classes and fewer teachers at traditional schools. Doctors learned how to practice telemedicine, when possible, limiting their need for offices and support staff. And so on, across the economy.
That’s “creative destruction” happening, and it’s a necessary if sometimes painful sort of change. We must cope and adjust. Instead of being clustered together in a workplace, more of us will be independent actors, providing valuable services from home. One of the great banes of workers — commuting — will decline as a concern. Fewer people will need to leave their home, and those who must will find streets less crowded. Parents who once saw their children for only a few hours a day will now be more often present.
What will all this change mean for labor unions, a prominent workforce influencer for more than a century? The shift away from a traditional workplace eliminates one of the main ways organizing was accomplished: employees talking to one another. Workers will be less inclined to see themselves as members of a collective if they don’t actually see fellow workers on a daily basis. Individual workers will feel more empowered to make demands of their employers, since they can more easily switch to another job. In schools, even a modest decline in class size will likely have a huge effect on teachers unions, since this will cut down the number of teachers. Union leaders were already struggling to maintain their numbers in the pre-COVID-19 workplace.
The growth in the so-called gig economy, now accelerated, will be a particular problem for unions. Gig workers are typically hired as contractors and, therefore, not legally organizable by unions. That’s why unions have been fighting a rear-guard effort to force companies to classify those workers as employees, most notably through California’s AB 5 law.
Unfortunately, cracking down on companies like Uber and Lyft simultaneously curtailed the work of other freelance professions, too, causing considerable blowback against AB 5. Uber and Lyft have threatened to stop operating in the Golden State altogether if the law survives coming battles in court and at the ballot box. It is hoped California’s misfortunes will deter other states from imposing such a draconian law.
Either way, the road ahead will be difficult for many people. The unemployment rate stands at 10.2%, twice what it was when President Donald Trump took office and nearly three times what it was at this point last year. There are 8.4 million people who are working only part time, more than twice what it was in February. More than 7 million cite “lack work or business conditions” as the reason they are part-timers. Businesses large and small alike have closed, taking jobs with them.
Meanwhile, the government has been paying large unemployment stipends for the better part of the year, with the main debate in Congress over just how large those benefits should be. At least the benefits don’t appear to have eroded Americans’ work ethic too much: Employment numbers have jumped every time people have been given the opportunity to work. Right now, allowing Americans to get back to work is still the best thing we can do for them, particularly in this altered world we find ourselves, where work as we knew it is changing rapidly.