Could this Labor Day mark the comeback of movements for workers' rights and a turn toward innovation and a new militancy on behalf of wage-earners?
Suggesting this is not the same as a foolish and romantic optimism that foresees an instant union revival. What's actually happening is more interesting.
Precisely because no one in organized labor expects the proportion of private-sector workers in their ranks to rise sharply anytime soon, unions, workers themselves and others who believe that too many Americans receive low wages are finding new ways to address long-standing grievances.
At play here is "Stein's Law," named after the late conservative economist Herb Stein, who shrewdly declared: "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." The steadily declining share of our economy that goes to wages is one of those things.
As New York Times labor writer Steve Greenhouse has noted, until 1975, "wages nearly always accounted for more than 50 percent of our nation's GDP." But in 2012, they fell to a record low 43.5 percent. Those who make the economic engine run are receiving less of what they produce. And it's not because employees aren't working harder, or smarter. From 1973 to 2011, according to the Economic Policy Institute, employee productivity grew by 80.4 percent, while median hourly compensation after inflation grew by just 10.7 percent.
Last Thursday's one-day strike of fast-food workers in dozens of cities is one of the new forms of labor creativity aimed at doing something about this. The folks who serve your burgers are demanding that, instead of an average fast-food wage of $8.94 an hour, they ought to be paid $15.
The protests have the benefit of putting low-wage workers in the media spotlight, a place they're seldom found.
Key unions are helping to organize these efforts, but they don't necessarily expect formal union recognition. They want to raise wages, which is what could happen if the public responds. Companies have been frantically painting themselves green to attract environmentally conscious customers. Employers might discover, to paraphrase the old McDonald's slogan, that their workers deserve a break today if consumers (who are also workers themselves) started pressuring them to be more employee-friendly.
The fast-food campaign feeds into efforts to hike the current $7.25-an-hour minimum wage nationwide and to enact higher "living wages" in localities around the country. In Long Beach, as my colleague Harold Meyerson reported recently in The American Prospect, voters last November overwhelmingly enacted a measure to boost the hourly pay of some 2,000 of the city's hotel employees to $13.
Because construction of the hotels had been made possible by government economic development assistance, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a union-supported group, argued that taxpayers had a right to expect a return on their dollars in the form of decent pay for local citizens. Voters agreed.
This is part of a larger strategy to insist that tax dollars not be used in ways that hold down wages. The group Good Jobs Nation file a complaint this summer alleging that food franchises at federal buildings in the nation's capital have ignored minimum-wage and overtime laws. The overall objective, as the National Employment Law Project has suggested, should be to use federal contracts, concessions and subsidies as leverage toward a higher-wage economy.
There's a new idea that brings these approaches together: "Pre-distribution." The term was coined by Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker as an alternative to "redistribution" that involves "government taxes and transfers that take from some and give to others."
Redistribution is necessary, but Hacker thinks that a more promising long-term solution is to begin changing "the way in which the market distributes its rewards in the first place." We need a fairer distribution "even before government collects taxes or pays out benefits."
The genius of the labor movement has always been its insistence that if the law genuinely empowered workers to defend their own interests, the result would be a more just society requiring fewer direct interventions by government. This may be the moment when that idea rose again.
E.J. Dionne is a syndicated columnist.