Unions must adapt or die
There's a renewed interest on the political left to support mass unionization to empower workers. Polls show union favorability is the highest it's been in generations, but union power and influence is on a multi-decade decline, and I don't see it ever coming back unless some major changes are instituted. While I agree with the end goal of worker empowerment, unions represent a 19th century, Industrial Age solution trying to tackle 21st century problems. We need to rethink unions and pensions.
The fundamental difference between the digital age and industrial age is the level of automation and artificial intelligence that increasingly dominates the labor market. Humans simply cannot compete against machines, and the more we fight it and refuse to adapt, the more people will suffer needlessly. We need to shift our entire economy and the fundamental assumptions that most Americans have concerning work, the primary being that you need to do work that has a market value in order to live.
We no longer live in a world that requires everyone to be economically “productive” because we're reaching a point where we have the technological ability to secure a minimum standard of living for everyone. Not doing so is a policy choice.
One characteristic of a "developing" economy is virtually unlimited labor supply where the cost of labor is essentially the bare minimum cost of keeping the humans that supply it alive. This is why the United States has relied on successive waves of immigration to keep us in a constant state of development (e.g. African, Chinese, Irish, Vietnamese, Mexican, etc.).
However, similar to race, the division between labor, management, and ownership is socially constructed. It is not some sort of economic law. The owners can also be the workers and management. We already have examples of this, they're called worker cooperatives, which are superior to unions in terms of empowering workers and democratizing the economy, at least in the private sector. Prof. Richard Wolff and Democracy @ Work are doing some interesting working advancing this model. I will admit, however, that in the public sector unions are still relevant, at least in dysfunctional, undemocratic governments that don't actually represent the will of the people, like we find in the US.
In a worker coop, conflicts over wages, benefits, etc. are irrelevant because the surpluses (profits) generated by their economic activities end up with the workers one way or the other, either in the form of higher wages/benefits or profit sharing.
Worker coops end up being more sustainable and resilient than companies with centralized ownership that is purely focused on financial returns because worker coops generally have a broader definition of "profit" and "shareholders," including the families of the employees, the communities in which they operate, and environment. I would even argue that financial profit itself represents economic inefficiency and in an efficient system, there would be no dividends or share buybacks because all surpluses would be reinvested in the company or redistributed in the form of lower prices.
The modern union/labor movement should be focused on building and expanding the network of worker/employee owned businesses, not fighting with management over scraps while robots continue siphoning off more and more jobs.
Furthermore, unions should re-establish and revitalize pension programs that invest in the technologies that will eventually replace their members' jobs (i.e. a pension for taxi and truck drivers that invests in automated vehicle technology). These pension funds could also be invested along side community wealth funds into local employee owned businesses that are less likely to offshore jobs.
The way we think about the relationship between labor and capital and working "for a living" needs to adapt or the economic consequences of business as usual will most certainly be catastrophic for humanity and the environment.