It's hard to believe in the power of organized labor if you've grown up over the past thirty years, a period of steady union decline. Conventional wisdom hold that the new service economy is inherently hostile terrain for labor organizers and, more broadly, that Americans just aren't the joiners they used to be. (Lots of civil society institutions have withered, not just unions.)
Also, the odds seem impossibly stacked against labor, even with strikes by low-wage workers sweeping the nation. Capital appears all-powerful right now thanks to a political system that favors those with money and a global economy that disadvantages national governments that seek to regulate transnational corporations.
More immediately, a glut of unskilled labor and lack of public outrage over low wages points to an uphill battle for organizers. In an Atlantic piece titled "Why the Fast Food Worker Strikes Are Doomed," Derek Thomspon writes:
The strikes would have a much better shot at inspiring a change in franchise- and corporate-level policy if fast-food chains perceived one of two threats: (a) a threat to the steady supply of food-service workers who want to be employed at any wage and (b) a threat from consumers demanding higher wages for their fast-food clerks by not buying burgers and fries at McDonald's. Instead, the big-picture doesn't reveal either of these pressure points.
But with yet another major strike scheduled for tomorrow, it's worth considering that everything we've learned about unions over our lifetimes and everything we believe about current political and economic conditions could be proven wrong, and in very short order.
Hosni Mubarak could certainly speak to the fungible nature of reality. Maybe he imagined one day being disposed by a coup or an Islamist uprising. But by Facebook and Twitter?
A central lesson of the Arab Spring is that seemingly immutable power arrangements can be upended virtually overnight by citizens armed with new technologies. Is McDonald's any harder to topple than Mubarak? It's hard to see why that would be the case.
Anyone who thinks they can predict a social movement's likely prospects in today's hyper-connected world is fooling themselves. Just predicting what social movements will arise at all is hard enough. Nobody saw the Tea Party coming. Nobody saw Occupy coming. Nobody saw the Arab Spring coming. And once these movements were up and running, they spread like lightning thanks to new techologies.
And social media is just one reason why today's labor movement is in a much better position than it was a century ago, when it was going up against the steel, coal, railroad, and textile industries -- battles that it ultimately won. Consider a few other factors that are comparatively more favorable to labor:
So are the fast-food worker strikers really "doomed?" That prediction seems premature, at best.